“The history of all hitherto existing society i.e. recorded history is the history of class struggle.” With these famous words Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 introduced their Communist Manifesto. Irish history, especially during the first years of this century, as it has been principally recorded, would appear to refute this remark. Armed Unionist reaction in the form of the Ulster Volunteer Force, thousands of nationalist volunteers, sectarianism and ultimately partition – all would seem to qualify Irish history as an exception. Religion, not class, would seem to be the motor of development. And so it has been treated by most historians.
Mountains of literature have been written of the subject of the division of Ireland. But very little has been said! In most accounts the class struggle has been relegated to a poor second place. But Marx’s statement is not only valid – it is key to understanding and interpretation of events during this period and since.
In 1870 the Liberal administration at Westminster introduced a Land Act which mildly reformed the iniquitous system of landlordism in Ireland. Improvements carried out by the tenant to the land were no longer to be accredited to the landlord. If a tenant was evicted for some reason other than non-payment of rent, the landlord could be forced to pay compensation.
This mild rebuke to the landlords did nothing to resolve the land question. It merely aggravated the landlords by imposing the sting of minute restrictions on their activities, while, at the same time, it added to the thirst of the tenants for more substantial reform.
But Prime Minister Gladstone’s first Land Act was an indication of a process of transformation taking place at the top of society. In earlier decades the interests of the landlords had been resolutely defended. Revolt after revolt of the tenants and landless masses had been put down in blood. All the trappings of the system of “British justice” in Ireland, the courts and the judiciary, served and faithfully upheld the interests of landlordism.
For the aristocratic establishment, repression had been the favourite weapon to use against the Irish. Yet the policy of repression and evictions held the movement back with one hand but provided it with nutrition on the other. It solved nothing. So long as the interests of the landlords were held to be supreme, no other policy was possible. By the last decade of the nineteenth century the power of the landowning aristocracy in Britain was firmly in decline. Industrial capital had become the predominant interest in the state.
For the hardheaded business acumen of the Victorian capitalists a better solution needed to be found. Why should they constantly place the stability of their system at risk by provoking dangerous and contagious ideas of revolt in Ireland in order to protect and maintain the bloated gentry? Inexorably as the power and wealth of society moved from the hands of the landlords into the grasp of the industrial bourgeoisie, the pressure to find a settlement to the land question grew.
Most immediately sensitive to this change were the English Liberals. At this time the Liberal Party was the major party of the capitalists in Britain. In order to safeguard the interest of capital they strove to placate the demands of the land-hungry peasants. Their early efforts fell too far short of the mark to prove effective. They merely increased the appetite of the tenant for real reforms. The 1870 Act resulted, not in an ebbing of the land agitation, but in its intensification.
With the repeal of the Corn Laws, the development of the world market and of new techniques of production, prices obtained in the market by the producers of agricultural products fell. The tenants found themselves unable to pay their rents. Those with smallholdings found their enterprises particularly unprofitable. Landlords retaliated by attempting to evict the smallholders and consolidate the land into more economic units – with higher rents, of course. During the late 1870s, as agricultural prices fell, the tenants found that the 1870 Act offered them no security from eviction. The Land League led by Michael Davitt held meetings of more than 10,000 to resist the evictions of their neighbours. To the horror of the British ruling class, these “peasants” were arming themselves for the purpose.
Davitt was answered with the traditional methods of the establishment. He and other leaders of the Land League were arrested. Meetings were banned and suppressed. Davitt was a revolutionary leader whose ideas and methods could not and would not be tolerated by the bosses. His demand was not merely for land reform, but for land nationalization. Unlike many of his predecessors at the head of similar revolts, he was conscious of the need to link the struggles of the tenants with those of the workers in the cities. A decade after the Land League agitation, he was attempting to create an Irish Federated Trade and Labour Union. Equally his outlook was not marred by the narrow horizons of nationalism. Looking at the English cities he saw a potential and powerful ally in the mass of the English workers. In later years, while in England, he was deeply involved in the struggle to create the British Labour Party.
Such ideas were dynamite to the bosses. The “excesses” of the land agitation were to be met with the full weight of repression. Precisely because Davitt and those like him were the most “dangerous” type of leaders to emerge from Ireland, an understanding of the need to tackle the root cause of the unrest grew in the minds of the capitalists.
On one side the traditional methods of repression were used. A special Coercion Bill was introduced by the government in order to give itself even more draconian powers. Repression merely accelerated the struggle and hardened the resistance of the tenants. Gladstone, the club of state terror in one hand, was forced to adopt a more gentle approach with the other – the granting of concessions in order to scrape from under the feet of the Land League the fertile soil in which it flourished.
In 1881, at the height of the land agitation, a second Land Act was introduced. This limited the power of the landlords to arbitrarily fix rents and established rent tribunals to which both the landlord and the tenant could appeal if they considered the rent unfair. Like the 1870 Act this reform merely rearranged slightly the relationship between the landlord and tenant, and avoided the real question: who owns the soil? In fact, because of rent arrears and other factors, over half the tenants with land over one acre were excluded from the provisions of this new Act.
Nevertheless the measure was sufficient temporarily to defuse the land agitation. After 1881 the Land League was in disarray. With its decline, the initiative in the struggle switched from the downtrodden masses in Ireland to the austere chambers in Westminster, where Charles Stewart Parnell was leading his Irish campaign of parliamentary disruption. Revolutionary action was supplanted by mere parliamentarianism. Social demands gave way to parliamentary rhetoric. Rather tan being pounded by the hammer of land agitation, the bosses found themselves tickled by the feather of parliamentary intrigue.
However, the success scored by the Liberals did not impress the British Tory Party. In words at least they responded to even the faintest trace of concession to the tenants with frenzy. In 1885 Gladstone’s Liberal administration was toppled and the Tories, under Lord Salisbury, came to power. Their answer to the Irish problem came close, in words at least, to the “solution” mooted during the Elizabethan era of “physical extermination”. Lord Salisbury advocated that Ireland be held in total subjugation for twenty years until “her spirit is broken”. After that time she “would be prepared to accept any gifts by way of local government, or repeal of the Coercion Laws, that you may be prepared to give her.” In other words, when the very thought of rebellion had been hacked from the minds of the people they would be ready for concessions – and not until then.
All of the age-old policies of British imperialism came to the minds of the Tories during this election campaign and after. In 1886, distressed at their lack of organization in Ireland during the previous election, concerned with etching out for himself a meteoric rise to prominence in the Tory Party, and seeing that the issue of Home Rule might suit its purpose, Lord Randolph Churchill visited Belfast and pronounced his “Orange card”. If the policy of “divide and rule” had been good enough to suit his class in the past, it would be good enough to suit Tory interests in the present. In February 1881 he wrote: “I decided sometime ago that if the G.O.M. (Gladstone) went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God may it turn out to be the ace of trumps and not the 2.” It did! Lord Randolph was rewarded in the summer of 1886 with some of the worst sectarian rioting suffered by the people of Belfast for many years.
The battle of words between the two parties who both represented the same fundamental class interests in Britain was a symptom of the switch in the policy of capital. Every class in society is divided into strata, some representing its forward-looking sections, others reflecting the outworn prejudices of past ages. Within the working class there are those who are conscious of their class identity and purpose, but there are also some whose minds are clogged with prejudices and reactionary ideas bestowed on them by capitalism. So too with the bourgeoisie. It too contains its rival factions and opinions. Every major crisis within society shatters the apparent unity of the dominant class and opens divisions for all to see. So the transformation of attitudes at the end of the nineteenth century on the issue of the land, and also, as will be explained later, on the issue of Home Rule, could not be a smooth or uniform process.
There are historical accounts which portray the struggle in Ireland in this period as a consequence of a war being conducted in the chambers of parliament between the Liberal and Tory parties. Such accounts explain nothing. Both the Liberals and the Tories in the final analysis served their class masters.
The Liberals, leaning on their support among the rising bourgeoisie, vied with their Tory and more aristocratic opponents to become the major and predominant party of capital. Both can accurately be described as capitalist parties. But a party of the ruling class can make statements which in concrete circumstances are against the interests of capital. At such times the pressures of the tops of society will be brought to bear on these political representatives to bring them to heel. Thus, despite the divisions in words between the Liberals and the Tories, in the last analysis, throughout this period, they were brought back to the fold of the bosses and forced to carry out the dictates of their masters.
On every major question the position of the leadership, of both the Liberal and the Tory parties, when spelt out in action as opposed to pure rhetoric, was the same. On the land, on Home Rule, on the need for coercion, this was to be shown.
Neither party was prepared to realize fully the knife of repression as a means of subduing any movement of social agitation in Ireland. But both Tory and Liberal governments, up to and after the turn of the century, placed an ever greater emphasis on the use of concession both on the issue of land and on the issue of Home Rule.
A series of Land Acts was introduced to follow on from where those of 1870 and 1881 had left off. Land reform went through parliament again in 1887, 1891, 1896, 1903 and 1909. Of all these measures it was the Wyndham Act of 1903 which went furthest to resolve for the time being the land question. This Act permitted the tenant to buy the land. In the first five years after it received the royal assent, 228,958 tenants signed agreements for the purchase of their lands.
For their part the landlords were not particularly upset. With more than generous compensation terms, which would mean tenants owing them annuities for many years, they were not too concerned at the loss of their properties. A socially useless breed who had lived off the wealth produced by their tenants, they were content to live out their lives of idleness as comfortably as ever, but without the burden of “quarrelsome Irish peasants” to contend with.
The 1903 Act, only slightly amended in 1909, was introduced not by the Liberals but by the Tories. A.J. Balfour was Prime Minister at the time, the A.J. Balfour who had been appointed Irish Chief Secretary in 1895 by none other than Lord “twenty years of repression” Salisbury.
As with the issue of the land, so with the issue of Home Rule. Throughout the nineteenth century the fight for independence was inexorably linked with the struggle for ownership of the soil. In countries where there exists a vestige of landlordism or serfdom, there also exists an unquenchable yearning on the part of the tenants and peasants to own the land they work. In Ireland the masses of the rural population were not driven to seek independence because in their minds there existed some mystical conception of “the nation”. In the minds of many of their leaders there existed such an idea, but the minds of the peasants, the landless and rootless poor, and of the tenant farmers contained more. They envisaged a nation in which the land would be theirs and the fruits of their labour would not be sent to parasitic absentee landlords. The struggles of such movements as Young Ireland and Fenianism were met with the full ferocity of state repression precisely because at bottom these were social movements against the class system of landlordism.
If the problem of the land could be resolved, the poison would be removed from the sting of the Home Rule demand. Just as with land reform, why should the capitalists stand four-square against Home Rule if their economic and military interests were not directly threatened? Without the danger of a social explosion accompanying any measure of autonomy there existed no reason why an Irish parliament with a few limited powers outside of defence and control of the ports could not be granted as a sop to the Irish. Quite the reverse. In fact the granting of a measure of autonomy would be a means of partially satisfying the call for independence and reducing the prospect of any real movement for genuine self-government emerging.
The switch of focus from the agitation of the Land League to the parliamentary campaign of Parnell in the early 1880s was symbolic of a transformation taking place – the separation of the Home Rule issue from the social issues which had driven the Irish masses into a succession of revolts.
Parnell replaced the moderate and ineffective Isaac Butt as Secretary of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain in 1877. During the land war he fought alongside Davitt, but utterly lacked the latter’s revolutionary intent. Towards the end of this campaign Parnell was arrested. Before going to prison he contentedly assured his mistress, Kathleen O’Shea, that he was not concerned about his arrest because he knew that in a few months the agitation would be over. Then he could emerge a martyr from his jail and turn the defeats of the Land League into parliamentary victories for himself and his followers.
And indeed the exhaustion of the Land League allowed Parnell to have his way. Before the end of 1882 the Land League was replaced by a new organization, the Irish National League. This body, unlike its predecessor, was dominated by the parliamentary party and concentrated its efforts on the issue or Home Rule.
In parliament Parnell successfully and skilfully used every major disruptive tactic at his disposal. A thorn in the side of the major parties, mainly because he was on occasions able to hold the balance of power, he was capable of focusing attention on the Home Rule issue. However, it had been the might of the Irish masses and the possibility of their establishing links with the working masses in the slums of the English cities which the bosses had feared. Parnell was a nuisance, but, like anyone who comes to conceive of a struggle mainly in terms of parliamentary majorities and parliamentary trickery, he was on stage removed from the driving force of the social struggle in Ireland. During the land campaign such tactics had supplemented the social struggle. They were a development of the land agitation into the austere institution of parliament itself. After the collapse of the Land League a parliamentary struggle was substituted for a campaign to mobilize the Irish people.
Parnell was riper material for British capital to squeeze into compromise. With the pushing to the background of Davitt, the separation of the social struggle from the Home Rule agitation was begun. Davitt himself summed this up when he spoke of the replacement of the Land League by the National League, which he said was “the complete eclipse by a purely parliamentary substitute of what had been a semi-revolutionary organization. It was in a sense the overthrow of a movement, the enthronement of a man, the replacing of nationalism by Parnellism.” Under Parnell the social and national issues were drawn apart. After him this separation was taken to even greater extremes.
Davitt stands a giant when compared to Parnell. But Parnell himself was a giant when places alongside the reactionaries who attempted to step into his shoes: the Redmonds, the Griffiths and the other leaders of the national struggle who, while they expressed their hatred of British rule, much more openly and energetically expressed their hatred, contempt and absolute dread of the Irish working class.
Given a lull in the struggle on the land and the emergence of a breed of political leaders with whom it might be possible to strike a deal, the “horrors” associated with even limited independence diminished as far as the ruling class was concerned. In 1886 Gladstone had introduced the first Home Rule Bill. As already mentioned this measure gave rise to venomous opposition on the part of the Tory chiefs. They even went to the lengths of calling for armed resistance to home Rule in Ulster. The Bill, introduced in April, was defeated in June. It had offered a mere pretence of independence. It hoped to stifle the real demand by offering only the shadow. An Irish executive would be established, but excluded from its authority would be defence, foreign policy, trade and navigation.
In 1893 a second Home Rule Bill was presented to parliament by Gladstone and smashed to pieces by the hammer of the House of Lords veto. As with the first Bill it offered the proposed Irish parliament only the most nominal rights of independence.
The strategy underlining these Bills was aptly summed up by the phrase which was commonly coined: “Killing Home Rule with kindness”. Just as the Tories had initially denounced all land reform, so they allowed no chance to slip by to bemoan this equally “weak-kneed policy”.
But, lo and behold, even the Tories by the end of the century were being awakened to the more sensitive needs of capital. All but the most stupid backwoodsmen were beginning to see that a separate Irish parliament with negligible powers might not present the dangers initially imagined. Just the opposite! Not to grant limited autonomy might provoke a movement for genuine Home Rule. After 1903, with the landlords pensioned off to idleness, and the social issue of ownership of the land settled for the time being, this attitude was undoubtedly strengthened.
Needless to say the change of heart of the masters did not go unnoticed among the pawns in Ulster. During the 1895 elections the heads of the Tory Party had leaned heavily upon the Irish Unionists to draw electoral support. In 1900 a leading article in a Dublin daily paper which echoed the views of the Irish Unionist Alliance reminded the Tories that in 1895 “Lord Salisbury and the Duke of Devonshire publicly thanked the Alliance for its services in helping to return that Government to power.” In 1900 the representative of the Queen in Ireland refused to meet a deputation of the Alliance. The article postulates the reasons for such a snub:
“One is that the Government conceives itself to have no further use for those Irish Unionists whose efforts turned the scale in its favour in 1895. Another reason is that, with an insight which does credit to its cunning, but infinite discredit to its honour, the Government sacrifices the Irish loyalist on the altar of his own loyalty.”
And then the supreme irony! What policy are the Tories actually pursuing? Precisely that which they themselves (when it suited) had condemned as “weak-kneed liberalism”. The Tory attitude, the article continues, “is a striking exposition of the rewards which await Irish loyalty under a Conservative administration and an astonishing proof of the extremes to which the government will go in pursuit of its policy of “killing Home Rule with kindness”.
As late as 1910 the Tory leaders, who within a few years were to be beating the Orange drum louder than ever, met in a constitutional conference to discuss the formation of a coalition government which would include in its policy Home Rule for Ireland. At that time F.E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, a man destined to become one of the closest accomplices of the Carsonite rebellion, declared that Home Rule was “as a dead quarrel for which neither the country nor the party cares a damn outside of Liverpool and London”.
Why such an apparent change of heart? As always the answer to such riddles, which remain a complete mystery to the bourgeois historians because to them the dialectics of the class struggle are a closed book, lies in the changing balance of class forces.
Having brushed the nuisance of the social struggle for the land off one side of the stage, the ruling class had barely time to pause and draw breath before the giant of labour entered from the opposite wing, bringing with it the social struggle for the ending of the system of class exploitation itself. The emergence of the working class as an independent force for the first time in history left not one thing “sacred”. Every attitude, every policy previously adopted by the bosses, had to be retested in terms of its effect on the emerging labour movement.
During and after the 1880s in Britain the labour movement was transformed by the development of “new unionism”. Previously unorganised sections of the working class – the unskilled – were drawn into the unions in an explosive struggle. In 1888 there was the famous strike of the match girls of Bryant and May who formed their own union as a result. One year later under the leadership of Will Thorne, the gas workers formed a union. 20,000 members joined in the short space of four months. 1889 was also the year of massive struggles involving the dockers of London and again resulting in an unprecedented spread of union organization. The Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union rapidly grew into a powerful body of 30,000 members. The membership of the old unions also expanded during this period. And significantly the trades council movement sprang into life. Between 1889 and 1891, sixty-two new trades councils were formed. The most downtrodden, the most oppressed sections of society, were being drawn into revolt.
The result was a shaking out of the old crass ideas of cringing reformism which had installed themselves at the head of the workers’ organizations. In Britain the development of the labour movement had brought in its wake an irresistible demand for the extension of the franchise and an end to the old corrupt system of parliamentary local elections. Unable to arrest the growth of the workers’ movement, the most clear-sighted of the bourgeoisie had attempted to lean on its better-off sections and head the movement in the direction of reformism. Not the strength of capitalism but the narrow craft prejudices of the “labour aristocracy”, as Marx termed them, allowed the private property system to survive.
The development of “new unionism” introduced a chapter of class militancy. The blunt ideas of opportunism of the old union tops were met with the checks, challenges and outright opposition of the newly unionised workers. Class conflict in society produced a battle of ideas within the labour organizations. Tom Mann, Ben Tillet and other new leaders emerged to take positions in the movement, displacing those who had peddled the narrow class-compromise views of the labour aristocracy.
Capital would have to resort to new methods to restrain this new threat! If the workers could not be held back by the cushioning of their leaders and the development amongst them of soft ideas, then they would have to be met head on. The efforts of the bosses merely succeeded in channelling the struggle of the workers in another direction. Facing restrictions on their political activity, the movement turned eventually to political action. In 1892 the TUC drew up a scheme for a Labour Representation Board. A few independent Labour MPs had already entered parliament.
Further attacks from the bosses accelerated these developments. South Wales railway workers struck in 1900. The employers issued an injunction on the union for the picketing activities of its members. In 1901 the Taff Vale decision resulted in the union being asked to pay £23,000 damages to the company.
In this the state institutions were doing no more than playing their real role of guardians of capital. But by presenting this open face to the workers they gave the necessary impetus to the developing political consciousness of the movement. By 1903 the bulk of the unions had affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee. Between 1903 and 1905 affiliation to this body rose from 445,450 to 861,200. The most decisive and important step towards the breakup of the Liberal-Labour alliance had been taken.
The development of the Irish labour movement mirrored closely but not exactly that of Britain. Early Irish unions, representing the skilled workers in such industries as ship-building, the railways and the breweries, grew as part and parcel of the British movement. In fact many early British unions organized branches in Ireland, in part as a protection against surplus Irish labour being used against them in Britain. Twice during the nineteenth century the TUC emphasized this bond by meeting in Ireland.
The stirring of independent political action in Belfast coincided with the political growth of the movement in Britain. In 1891 delegates to the Belfast Trades Council called for a branch of the Labour Representation Committee to be set up in the city. Two years later a Belfast branch of the Independent Labour Party was formed. Trades council candidates stood in local elections in 1894 and again in 1898. However, the emergence of the “new unionism”, the organization of the unskilled, did not come until later.
Thus, while the drawing together of the political nucleus of Irish labour mirrored similar developments in Britain, it did so at a different pace. In Britain the infancy of the political consciousness of labour was reflected in the Liberal-Labour alliance. That infancy was shattered by the impetus of class struggle. In Ireland, precisely because of the delay in the rise of “new unionism”, the movement remained bound by old ideologies for longer.
Reflecting the fact that a socialist consciousness even in Belfast was at little more than a fetus stage, the early spokesmen of the unions and the first political candidates to which they turned were both confused by, and filled with, the old reactionary ideologies from which the movement was attempting to break.
Alexander Bowman stood in Belfast in 1885 with the support of the Trades Council. He, at one time, had attempted to form a Protestant Home Rule Association and had been ejected from his trade-union office for doing so. Another of the founders of the political wing of the movement and a leading figure nationally was William Walker. Walker never managed to shake from his mind the traces of Unionism which marked this infantile stage of labour development. Like the movement itself, one fart of Walker was groping towards a developed socialist stand, while the rest remained loyal to the political ideas of his masters. When the movement lurched forward Walker’s Unionism got the better of his socialism and he ended up within the Unionist Party.
The rise of the Labour Party in Britain after 1903 had its immediate effects in Ireland. A conference of the Labour Representation Committee attended by trade-unionists and ILP members was held that year in Belfast. Also in 1903 a resolution was passed at the Irish Trade Union Congress calling for the creation of a pledge-bound Labour Party. But, unlike in England, where the struggle had developed to a higher level, this resolution was ignored. The activists and most advanced layers of the movement were drawn by the idea of labour representation even at this early stage. But the broad mass of the Irish workers had not had the whip of a Taff Vale cracked over their heads to drive them, as a class, towards independent political consciousness and political involvement. It was to take a further nine years and titanic struggles, North and South, before the Trade Union Congress was forced to put the flesh on the demand for an Irish Labour Party. Nonetheless, from the 1900s the entire movement drew itself forward towards the inevitable political activity.
The struggle to organize the unskilled may have come later in Ireland than in England. Old ideas may have held sway at the top of the movement for a few years after the English match girls, gas workers, dockers, etc., had discarded them. Nonetheless when the battle calls were heard they ushered in a period of intense struggle which developed to a revolutionary pitch.
In the first decades of this century “new unionism” swept all before it in Ireland. It took the camps of Green Toryism and Orange Toryism and cracked them asunder. The northeast was the main industrial centre in Ireland. There the people worked in slavish conditions, out of their sweat producing profits for the linen barons, the magnates of shipbuilding and engineering and for the other financiers and capitalists. It was in the northeast that the revolt began. As early as the 1890s, election results had shown the beginnings of the fragmentation of the all-class alliance of the various Unionists and nationalists. In 1898 William Walker and six other representatives of Belfast Trades Council were elected to Belfast City Council.
At the turn of the century the Orange Order split. An Independent Orange Order was formed. Its leaders spent their energies denouncing the gentry who headed the Orange Order as being too soft towards the Catholics. The split was along class lines, with the bulk of the working-class members of the Orange Order moving behind the new Independent Orange Order, which was forced to echo the class aspirations of the Protestant workers within its ranks.
On July 12, the Independent Orange Order produced a manifesto, part of which read:
“in an Ireland in which Protestant and Roman Catholics stand sullen and discontent, it is not too much to hope that both will reconsider their positions and, in their common trials, unite on a true basis of nationality. The higher claims of out distracted country have been too long neglected in the strife of party and of creed.”
In the elections of 1903 the Unionist establishment received a sharp blow. Sir James Craig presented himself to the electorate of North Fermanagh. The election was fought in the period immediately prior to the passing of the Wyndham Land Act of that year, Craig himself opposed by Edward Mitchell, who claimed to stand for the “people’s cause against the landlords”. By 200 votes Mitchell beat the man who was later to become a Prime Minister of the post-partition Northern Ireland state.
At first this rising tempo of class discontent found its expression in splits within the sectarian Tory groupings. Paradoxically, at times it even gave rise to more extreme variants of sectarianism. The magnetic attraction of the class movement first of all revealed itself in the breaking up of the old political patterns. Eventually its own clear lines of force were to become established.
In the 1906 general election the Unionist establishment was shown to be in disarray. An Independent won in South Belfast, a Nationalist captured the west of the city, and in North Belfast William Walker came within a few hundred votes of capturing a seat for Labour. The extent to which class issues and ideas were beginning to predominate is not always understood. Particularly this is so since the history books generally inform us that the first decades of this century were dominated by the debate over Home Rule. On the contrary! In 1905, 1906 and 1907 the grip of the bigots was all but broken in Belfast. Who better to confirm this than one of the architects of the loyalist reaction, the future gunrunner for Carson, F.H. Crawford. In a letter written in 1906 he lamented on behalf of his reactionary Unionist brethren,
“we have lost a lot of the staunch Unionist workmen in Belfast. They consider themselves betrayed by their leader Mr. Balfour and have gone for the labour and socialist programs. This is what we have to combat locally. The old Unionist enthusiasm is dead among the masses here. These are facts and all in tough with the workingmen know it.”
“The old Unionist enthusiasm is dead among the masses”! What could be clearer or more precise! Those who did not know this when Crawford penned these words were soon to learn it. In 1907 the Irish working class signalled for the first time that they had arrived on the scene of history. “New unionism”, when it spread to Belfast, wrote out again, this time in the vivid language of class struggle, Crawford’s statement that the workingmen “have gone for the labour and socialist program”.
In 1907 James Larkin came to Belfast from Liverpool as a full-time organizer of the National Union of Dock Labourers. Very quickly he drew the majority of the dockers into membership, easily displacing the less militant Carter’s Association. In June 1907 Larkin called out 500 dockers in support of a wage claim. This was the small beginning of a titanic clash which was to propel the young proletariat of Belfast into head-on collision with the state and the bosses. A few weeks after the beginning of the dockers’ struggle, the carters came out in sympathy and with their own demands for improved pay and for a closed shop. The movement developed and spread. By the end of July 500 dockers, 1000 carters and 1000 coalmen, who also struck in sympathy, were involved in the battle.
Feeding on the miserable condition of industrial Belfast, the strike movement had taken root. Symptomatic of the support among wide layers of society for the strikers was the response of the police. Larkin had made an appeal to the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast on the basis of the hours they were being forced to work. The result was a police mutiny which was eventually suppressed, most of the Belfast police finding themselves transferred to country areas where the “seditious” propaganda of Larkin and his like would not reach them, and where they would be rubbing shoulders with the rural population, not with workers. 6000 troops were drafted into Belfast, supposedly to protect “life and property”.
“Property” the troops were sent to protect. “Life” they were not! In August, during rioting on the Falls Road, the army opened fire and shot dead two men. These riots were part and parcel of a desperate attempt on the part of the bosses to divide the workers along sectarian lines. Protestant bigots pointed to Larkin in an attempt to brand the whole dispute as a “plot by the nationalists”. The attacks by the troops took place on the Falls Road in order that the rioting would appear to be sectarian and that the real issues could be disguised. Towards the end of the dispute, F.H. Crawford commented on the August riots in a letter to a Major Doyne of Wexford:
“What a blessing all the rioting took place in a Catholic quarter of the city. This branded the whole thing as a nationalist movement.”
The development of sectarianism was prevented partly as a result of the prompt intervention of the strike leaders. A notice was issued by the strike committee after the August riots. It read: “not as Catholics or Protestants, as nationalists or unionists, but as Belfast men and workers, stand together and don’t be misled by the employers’ game of dividing Catholic and Protestant.” Sectarianism could not take root because the conditions for it were not ripe. On July 12, 1907, two separate Orange parades were held in Belfast while the industrial battle was being fought out all around. One of these parades was organized by the Independent Orange Order. Not only did this parade pass a resolution supporting Larkin and the strikers, but a collection in aid of the strike fund was also taken up.
In August the carters returned to work having won on the question of wages but failed to secure the closed shop. Later the coalmen returned on similar terms. The dockers stuck it out until the beginning of November, when they could stay out no longer, and they returned to work partially defeated. In November further unrest spread, and carters, cranemen and coalmen struck, complaining that the August agreement was not being implemented by the employers. The British union leadership intervened over the heads of Larkin and the local leaders. The men were persuaded to return to work.
This unforgettable struggle opened a new chapter in Irish history. The law of history etched out during the land agitation of the previous century that, when social issues are presented to the forefront, all other issues, including sectarianism, can be seen to melt. The land struggles, the movement of the United Irishmen and other such movements had forged a unity of Catholic and Protestant. The emergence of the industrial working class once again showed that sectarianism could be overcome. But the class movement begun in 1907 did not merely repeat the history of past solidarity. All history is a development. The working class in 1907 raised the concept of the unity of Catholic and Protestant to a higher-than-ever level. The workers proved more deeply than ever that, when the class struggle is going forward, nothing, not even the most vicious attempts to scar it with bigotry, can stand in its path.
Even Crawford, surveying the attempts by his class to restore their authority during the strike, had to admit defeat. To him the strike was led by nationalists, but “the serious part of the business is that they have duped a lot of Protestants, who call themselves Independent Orangemen, and a few demagogues who like to hear their own voice.”
Belfast 1907 was a prelude to even stormier developments in the South. The disgust felt by Larkin at the activities of Sexton and the national leaders of the dockers’ union resulted in a split. In 1908 Larkin formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The split did not assist the development of the movement in the North. Few joined Larkin’s union. The revolutionary socialist James Connolly, who was later appointed by Larkin as Northern organizer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), on a number of occasions reacted strongly to criticism from Larkin that he was failing to make significant headway with the union membership in the North. Connolly explained that the conditions in the North after 1907 were not as easy as those in the period immediately before the strike. The workers were pausing to catch their breath. In these conditions the split in the union was a positive drawback.
While the struggle in the North temporarily ebbed, the formation of the ITGWU heralded a series of class battles throughout the rest of the country, which culminated in the 1913 Dublin lockout. The growth of the ITGWU was a barometer of the explosive developments building up. In 1911 they had approximately 4000 members. By 1913 its numbers had swelled to 300,000. A paper produced by Larkin, The Irish Worker, began in 1911 with a circulation of 15,000 copies. This very quickly rose, and levelled off at a weekly distribution of 20,000. By contrast, at the same time, the newspaper of Sinn Fein sold a mere 2000 copies. Such figures give a true indication of the balance of class forces.
The mood within society was again apparent from the attitude of those within the ruling circles. In 1911, referring to the strike of railway workers, the head of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce pronounced: “This strike is not a strike in the ordinary sense of the word: it is the beginning of a social war, a revolution... the thin edge of the wedge of socialism... force must be met with force and the union of the workers must be met by unions of the employers to uphold public order.” Such sentiments were not isolated. The employers, for their part, reacted to the growth of trade unionism, and in particular to the use by the Larkinites of the crippling weapon of the sympathy strike, by organizing an Employers’ Federation. One of the leading Dublin capitalists, a man called William Martin Murphy, less politely described by Larkin as a “modern capitalist vampire”, who made a career of “destroying the characters of men who he was and is not fit to be a doormat for”, organized 4000 employers into this “strike-breaking” Federation. With this the battle lines were clearly drawn.
Strikes in Dublin, in the Jacobs Factory, among seamen, among firemen, on the port and a sympathy strike by 16,000 railwaymen who downed tools in solidarity with 200,000 British rail workers then on strike, were the beginnings of the class war. In August 1911 the employers locked out 550 members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in Wexford, demanding that they leave this union. During this struggle, which lasted until February 1912, the workers went so far as to organize the strike. Ultimately a compromise was reached. A new union was formed for the locked-out men and in the event this soon merged with the ITGWU.
Wexford was but a dress rehearsal for a concreted offensive by the employers in an attempt to break the ITGWU and with it destroy the combativity of the young Irish proletariat. This offensive reached its crescendo when in August 1913 Murphy and his Employers’ Federation declared war on the workers of Dublin. ITGWU members working for Murphy’s newspaper, the Irish Independent, were told that they must resign their union membership or lose their jobs. The paper was blacked by the union and the men were locked out.
By late August the use of the lockout tactic had spread as other employers expressed their “class solidarity”. By September 25,000 workers were locked out. Each had received a document to sign stating that they would have nothing to do with Larkin’s union. As quickly as the workers refused, the employers locked the gates.
Friedrich Engels said that the state, in the final analysis, could be reduced to “armed bodies of men acting in defence of property”. No worker who has been involved in industrial action and has been met with the fury of the media, the police, army, courts, etc., will need these words to be explained. Dublin in 1913 presented a crystal-clear picture of the true role of the capitalist state. All the instruments of repression available were swung into action on the side of the bosses. The strike leaders, including Connolly and Larkin, were arrested. Strike meetings were banned and the police used to break up or attempt to break up any that were held.
If the forces of the state are in the hands of the bosses, then the workers have nowhere to look for protection except to themselves. The workers of Dublin learned this simple lesson in 1913. When a workers’ band was threatened by police attack, the workers formed a defence guard to protect it. Initially these workers carried hurley sticks to defend themselves. It was from such incidents that the Irish Citizen Army, the first army of the working class in Ireland, was formed. James Connolly, one of its founders, wrote: “an armed organization of the Irish working class is a phenomenon new in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as members of an army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own futures.”
But nothing could have matched the role of the church hierarchy. Trade unionists in Britain offered to foster some of the starving children of the Dublin strikers until the dispute was over. The “holy” priests of Dublin would have none of this. Gangs of “godly” people were organized to picket the docks to prevent Catholic children being shipped to the homes of Protestants and atheists. Better, in the minds of these clerical bigots that the children starve but remain true to the “faith of their fathers” than they should fill their stomachs with Protestant food. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein backed the antics of the clerics with the following piece of cynicism: “it has recently been discovered that the Irish working man is not an Irish working man at all. He is a unit of humanity, a human label of internationalism, a brother of the men over the water who rule his country.”
Every great class movement simplifies and clarifies class relationships. It divides society into camps cutting to the root of religious and other reactionary propaganda which serve to camouflage the real nature of capitalism. Dublin in 1913 was divided into what Sinn Fein described in horrified but nevertheless correct terms as the “units of humanity”, that is the workers who owned no part of Ireland, and the privileged class and the owners of property who were fighting to hold onto their privileges.
Just as the 1907 dispute sundered the Unionist alliance, so the nationalists were pulled apart by the Dublin lockout. Within a nationalist or a republican all-class alliance there are those whose sights are on a socialist republic and other whose minds are filled with the vision of a capitalist republic or nation – with themselves in charge, of course! These strands are always separated by the pull of the class struggle. In 1910 the left wing of Sinn Fein split off to form a movement called “Irish Freedom”. Again in 1913 the left of the republican movement were drawn to the workers, while those of Griffith’s ilk stood with the employers. Those republicans who were later to lead the 1916 insurrection in Dublin stood apart from their right-wing associates by the support they gave in 1913 to the workers.
In the event, neither side won a conclusive victory. The workers of Dublin struggled on until February 1914. Then they were starved back to work. They had not won. But neither had the bosses. The union had not been broken. The workers had fought the issue to a standstill, until they could fight no more. They could have won, but only with the active support of the British trade-union movement. Throughout the strike British workers had given enormous support. In September the TUC voted £5000 in assistance. The miners voted £1000 per week in October. One member of the Dublin lockout committee claimed that £150,000 was donated to assist their struggle. However, the crucial issue lay in extending this support to a total blacking of Dublin goods and even sympathetic strikes in England which would have hit hard at the pockets of people like Murphy who had, for example, sizeable investments in the tramways of many British cities. The TUC leaders drew back from such a development of their support for the Dublin workers. Many of them also feared that to go further in support of the strike would give a boost to what to them were the dangerous ideas of Connolly and Larkin.
A special Trade Union Congress held in December overwhelmingly defeated a motion which asked the British transport workers not to handle Dublin goods. Together the British and Irish workers held the head of Dublin capital in a noose. But instead of tightening their grip the British leaders drew back. As the support from Britain dwindled the Dublin workers were forced into retreat. Between 1907 and 1914 the Irish working class for the first time in history flexed their muscles and fought as an independent force in pursuit of their own demands. They did not win, but neither did they suffer a humiliating defeat. Instead they came to see in action the tremendous power they possessed and to understand how that power must be utilized and deployed in future struggles.
Such industrial militancy in the last analysis must find its reflection in the political outlook of the movement. Although later than in Britain, the ideas of class harmony of the old-style trade unionism were shattered more completely, more forcibly in Ireland. In the first decades of this century the cradle of the movement had been in Belfast. There the shades of the future were fought out in the form of the battle of ideas of James Connolly and William Walker.
The Connolly-Walker controversy was more than a war of words between two individuals, albeit important individuals in the movement. Connolly’s approach echoed the revolutionary stirrings of the masses, while Walker gave expression to the more conservative and inert layers of the movement. Walker’s “Labour Unionism” in effect meant the containment of the workers’ movement within the bounds of sectarianism. Connolly, although he was incorrect in arguing for the complete separation of the Irish from the British movement, represented the need for independent and united political action by the working class.
Before the dockers, carters and the unskilled showed that they were a force to be reckoned with, Walker-type views predominated. Connolly managed to gain the support of only a tiny handful. His Irish Socialist Republican Party, which he formed in Belfast in 1897, never had a total membership of more than 100. But Connolly stood on the side of historical development while Walker came more and more into conflict with it. The Irish Trade Union Congress, established in 1894, was transformed by the explosions which marked the growth of new unionism. In 1912 the need for independent political action, which had been accepted in words in 1903, was re-emphasized. Connolly, recognizing the need for a mass party of the workers, particularly in the light of the developing crisis over Home Rule in the North, moved a resolution calling for the establishment of a Labour Party. It is noteworthy, especially because ot the attitude of some of those who pretend to follow Connolly today, that he moved that the union form a broadly based Labour Party, despite the fact that he had built up a small socialist party and that other assortments of independent political parties which claimed to represent the workers then existed. Connolly was free of the haughty political sectarianism which prompts small socialist groups today to embellish their organizations with the pompous and ambitious title of the organization of the working class.
In 1914 the process of establishing a Labour Party was boosted by the decision of the ITUC to change its title to the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party. This decision was taken again on a motion moved by Connolly which was passed by 49 votes to 18. Signalling the transformation of the outlook of the movement was the adoption of the view that “labour unrest can only be ended by the abolition of the capitalist system”.
The immediate pre-war period in Britain also ushered in a new wave of major strikes. Railwaymen, dockers, seamen and miners all participated in major and prolonged disputes. Within the unions and the Labour Party a new layer of younger and more militant workers were clamouring for more decisive action on the part of their leaders. Between 1907 and 1912 almost every section of the British working class was involved in strike action. During these years the number of days lost due to strikes increased from 1,878,679 to 38,142,101. Not the question of Home Rule for Ireland, but the profound and revolutionary implications of such figures, and the discontent that they revealed, were the prime concern of the British ruling class during these years. Without understanding this there can be no understanding of the subsequent course of Irish history. Unionism, nationalism, Carsonism, Redmondism – all these phenomena can be explained only in the context of the social agitation then developing.
Before 1903 the British bosses had looked to the land issue as their major threat in Ireland. They feared that it might act as a fillip to the English workers. So the land agitation was largely dissolved with the tonic of concession.
But the struggle ebbed only to find its feet on a higher level. After 1907 the bosses feared, not the prospect of a unity of English workers with Irish tenants, but of the workers of Belfast and Dublin with their brothers in the mines, docks and factories of Britain.
Such struggles, such fears on the part of the ruling class, form the real backcloth to the Home Rule crisis in the period before the First World War. Only by picturing clearly the momentous significance of this tumultuous birth of Irish labour can the attitude of the bosses, the Liberals, Tories and nationalists, and the fears of sections of the workers, be understood. Without the clarity of class analysis we are left to retreat to the mumbo-jumbo of “holy wars” and tribal “tom toms” contained in too many historical accounts. To attempt an analysis of the events of the Home Rule agitation, without beginning from the conditions of the class struggle both in Ireland and in Britain, would be like attempting to paint and decorate a house before it is built.
In 1910 a general election left the Irish Parliamentary Party with the balance of power in the House of Commons. The result was a deadlock and another general election which merely re-created the deadlock. Home Rule was thus a major issue. Two years later, on April 11, 1912, the third Home Rule Bill was introduced by the Liberal government.
On this occasion a crisis developed which made the events surrounding the defeats of the previous Home Rule Bill appear like minor ripples in a stormy ocean. Several factors had changed by 1912. First the unquenchable thirst of the working class for democratization of the parliamentary procedure had forced through in 1911 a Parliament Act which limited the veto of the House of Lords. In future the Lords could delay a measure only three times in any one parliamentary session. After that a Bill would become law without the aristocratic blessing of the members of the upper chamber.
The neat constitutional method of defeating Home Rule was therefore blocked. But this in itself was not the decisive question. The threat from the working-class movement was. In the immediate post-war period the British ruling class was struck with dread of a social revolution at home. Faced with strike after strike affecting every major industry, with the suffragette movement and the attacks on that sacred institution the House of Lords, they trembled for the very existence of their system. In this period the British ruling class was preparing for a physical confrontation with the forces of the labour movement. To concede Home Rule in Ireland would only inflame the situation by opening the way to the prospect of a socialist Ireland with all the repercussions that could have in Britain.
Hence those who had previously adopted a soft attitude, even to Home Rule, began to move in the opposite direction. In the immediate pre-war period, capital was moving from its position of concession to the Irish struggle to a policy of coercion and of encouragement of sectarianism in order both to prevent Home Rule, and also to shatter the solidarity of the labour movement. Immediately the development of an armed movement of revolt among the Unionists in Ireland, particularly those in the North, was developed and encouraged by the British ruling class. It was hoped that the club of sectarianism could be used to shatter both Home Rule and also the greater threat of workers’ unity.
This change in position had the effect once again of pulling apart the Tory and Liberal parliamentary parties. History was being repeated but the course of transforming past relationships into their reverse. Previously the Tories had found themselves out of tune with the demands of their paymasters. Increasingly now it was the Liberals who discovered that their message was not the one which the capitalists wished to hear.
Liberal support for Home Rule was maintained right up until 1914, although amendments, including the question of a temporary partition, were considered. The Liberal leaders grew more and more out of touch with the existing mood within the top circles of society including the army. In 1914 a private secretary with knowledge of the attitudes of the Liberal leaders explained their plans to the Unionist Edward Carson:
“the plan is to procrastinate until the patience of the hooligan element in Belfast is exhausted and they begin to riot and incidentally you and the loyalists... Mr. Lloyd George is the only one who does not think things are serious. He said casually over the tea table, ‘put the Crimes Act in force, and the whole thing will fizzle out in a week’.”
This would have been all very well but for the attitudes of the army chiefs! While the Liberals were destroying the loyalist movement over cups of tea in London, the generals, the capitalists and the landowners were giving it every assistance and encouragement in Belfast. In March 1914 army regiments based at the Curragh camp in the Sough were ordered on “manoeuvres” to the North. Fifty officers promptly mutinied rather than carry out their instructions. Lloyd George and his colleagues soon realized that the “loyalist rebellion” would not be snuffed out in a week, not because of the strength of Carson’s forces, but because the ruling circles of society on whom the Liberals, just as much as the Tories, depended, did not want it. The government found itself suspended in mid-air, a group of legislators rapidly losing their power to administer what they might choose to enact.
In vain will pro-capitalist writers attempt to paint this “forgotten episode in British history” of the Curragh mutiny as the action of a few junior officers. The revolt was a revolt of the heads of society. The Curragh mutiny was prepared for and received the consent of the ruling class and the Tory leaders. Secret meetings between the Liberal cabinet and the tops of the army did not remain secret, because the army heads promptly passed on all information of Liberal plans to their Tory allies. In November 1913 the Tory leader Bonar Law, at a meeting in Dublin, had announced that the army would mutiny if sent to Ulster. Carson around this time was able confidently to predict that if the people of England allowed the government to attempt to coerce Ulster “the British army could not stand the strain”.
In this there is a profound lesson which the labour movement should take to heart for all time. The British ruling class is fond of presenting itself to the world as the champions of democracy. The years 1911-14 give insight into the real contempt the bourgeoisie has for parliament. Democratic rule, the right of free speech, the right to elect governments: these are acceptable so long as they do not challenge the class basis of society. In fact they provide the most stable basis of capitalist rule.
But when the antics of parliamentary leaders, even of Prime ministers, step beyond which the real rulers, the capitalist class, consider to be acceptable bounds, these people, even the institute of parliament itself, become “expendable”.
In 1912 the Tory leader, Bonar Law, who had earlier been prepared to accept Home Rule, bluntly exposed his attitude to parliament and to democracy when he threatened: “If Ulster is earnest, if Ulster does resist by force there are stronger things than parliamentary majorities... the government which gave an order to employ troops for that purpose (enforced Home Rule) would run the risk of being lynched in London.” Fine words from a man whose class fifty years later could jail two building workers at Shrewsbury for conspiracy for the crime of picketing!
Within Ireland the anti-Home-Rule agitation took shape in the period of the first Home Rule bill, mainly as a reactionary movement headed by the aristocracy. Lords and ladies of “esteem”, traditionally supporters of the Conservatives, were the most prominent members in the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union formed in May 1885. These people denounced the “communistic crew” who backed Parnell. Correctly they summed up the dangers of Home Rule to their social position by stating that Parnell’s support “consists of the lowest half of the population: of tenant farmers, on a small scale, who aim at acquiring the ownership of the soil they till without the usual preliminary of paying for it, of labourers who covet the land of the farmers.”
Paradoxically the place where Unionism sank its deepest roots began as its weakest area. The ILPU gathered its support from the landowning aristocracy and was strongest in the South. However, it remained an aristocratic movement. In 1871 it was supplanted by the Irish Unionist Alliance, which drew its support from the Southern landowners. After 1903 the stake of this class in anti-Home-Rule agitation was loosened. Unionism in the South sank into relative impotence, a fact emphasized in 1917 at the Irish Convention convened by Lloyd George when the Irish Unionist Alliance was arguing vehemently against partition, posing the alternative of an all-Ireland parliament which could provide safeguards for the Unionists.
When the first Home Rule Bill was introduced the Liberals were split on the issue; sections of the business community of Ireland who had been Liberals moved to a “Liberal Unionist” stance, and eventually switched their allegiance to the Tories.
Contrary to the impression which has often been given, the development of a “Unionist” outlook was not confined to the businessmen in the North. Throughout the country the large capitalists, as for example the Guinness family, together with the big ranchers, supported the maintenance of the link with Britain. However, because the bulk of large-scale industry was concentrated in the northeast, the strongest base for this reaction among the business community existed in that area.
Throughout the nineteenth century the development of capitalism in Ireland has been uneven. The linen industry in the North was able to attract capital for investment. At the same time it was not decimated by the English economy because it was not in competition with the products of the British capitalists. Under Free Trade, linen prospered. By the first decade of the twentieth century there were more linen mills in Belfast than in any other country.
Parallel with, and as a result of, the spectacular growth in linen came an equally spectacular growth in the engineering industry as firms developed to produce machinery for use in the mills. All took place in step with the growth of the major industrial centres in Britain. Ease of access to the British boosted the development of Belfast as part of an industrial triangle whose other points were Liverpool and Glasgow. As in both those cities, shipbuilding became a major industry in Belfast. Its two shipyards, Harland and Wolfe and Workman Clarke and Co., were major enterprise by international standards.
The growth of a nationalist movement demanding protection for Irish industry bent the big bourgeoisie, especially in the North, in the direction of Unionism. The prospect of tariff barriers being erected between them and the major sources of raw materials in Britain and elsewhere horrified the owners of large-scale enterprises whose production was often geared to export. After the first Home Rule Bill many switched their allegiance from the Liberals to the Tories. They allied themselves with the aristocrats in the Unionist Clubs movement of the late nineteenth century. In 1904 an Ulster Unionist Council was formed and again the support of the business community was given to its activities.
Big business was prepared to give its backing to the Unionist movement and lend support to attempts to whip up sectarianism which took place during the first debates over Home Rule. After the 1907 strike and faced with the spectacle of an enraged working class, their commitment, financial and otherwise, to the loyalists grew beyond all proportion. Like growing sections of the British ruling class they were moved to desperate lengths in order to safeguard their property and their system.
In 1911 the reactionary Dublin lawyer, Sir Edward Carson, who had made his name defending landlords in the courts, and who was selected as the “guru” of the Unionist cause, was induced to threaten to establish a provisional government in Ulster if Home Rule became a reality. His threat was designed to destroy Home Rule as a whole, not to bring about partition. In 1913 Ulster Unionists even went so far as to select the personnel for such a government. These steps were supported by the British Tories, by all backwoodsmen of empire-building British imperialism, but also by growing sections of the bourgeoisie in Britain together with the Ulster business community.
With such backing, funds proved no problem. In fact the way in which the bank balance of the Carsonites swelled almost overnight gives an indication of the attitudes of the tops of society. In 1913 an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed. A special Carson Defence Fund was set up so that the accounts of the Ulster Unionist Council would remain presentable to the Inland Revenue. The Ulster Unionist Council showed an annual expenditure in the region of £1000. Meanwhile tens of thousands were pumped into the reserves of the UVF, to supply arms, to drill and to train volunteers, to issue propaganda etc. In one meeting called to set up a fund a quarter of a million pounds was pledged. Most gave donations in the region of £10,00. Within one week £387,000 had been promised and in the short space of four months donations to the tune of £1,000,000 were either promised or made.
From Britain and even further afield the donations poured in. Lord Rothschild presented a mere £10,000. Lord Iveagh and the Duke of Bedford reduced their fortunes by a similar amount. The poet of “empire” Rudyard Kipling handed over a mere £30,000! Such sums marked the “class solidarity” of the bosses.
Carson’s activities and those of the UVF have been well documented. In 1912 400,000 people signed the “Covenant” which was a pledge to resist Home Rule. In 1914 25,000 guns were secretly smuggled into Larne on the Clydevalley. The town was taken over by the UVF and the guns distributed in carloads throughout the province.
To these activities, to the open marching and drilling of these armed volunteers, the state forces closed their eyes. From this the question must be posed: what would have happened if the workers of Ireland had attempted to import guns and tried to take over a town for that purpose? There would have been mass arrests and widespread searched. Yet Larne was surrendered to the UVF without a shot being fired. The state forces were supposed to be fully occupied with a few diversionary incidents in Belfast! Then a few haystacks here and there may have been turned over in the hope that one or two of the 25,000 rifles might be found! That was the extent to which the Clydevalley incident annoyed the bosses.
The British ruling class was prepared to wage a ruthless war on the workers of Dublin. It was prepared to send its army against the miners of South Wales, with no squeals of horror or threats of mutiny from the officer class whenever bayonets were drawn at Tonypandy in 1910 – but Ulster, they declared, “must not be coerced”. In reality the government was paralyzed and could not move against the UVF simply because the real forces of the state, the army and the police, the business community, etc., were firmly on the side of the loyalists. The most vicious sectarianism was being invoked in order to destroy the Home Rule movement but more particularly to derail the movement of the working class.
The UVF was a reactionary army comprising the most backward sections of the Protestant population. At the top it consisted entirely of aristocrats, businessmen, wealthy lawyers, church ministers, doctors, ex-army officers, etc. Lists of those who participated in its founding read like a Who’s Who of the uppermost circles of society. As a special treat Sir George Richardson, an ex-officer in the British army, was called in to lead this force. His credentials were impeccable! His family history could boast distinguished service to imperialism. His grandfather fought for the East India Company, his father had played his part in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. Following in father’s footsteps, Sir George had joined the Indian army, had fought with Roberts in the Afghan campaign, and had really earned his credentials as a champion of “empire” when he had gone to China in 1900 to crush the Boxer Rebellion.
At the bottom the UVF mobilized the traditionally conservative elements among the rural Protestants, the petty bourgeoisie and the semi-demoralized lumpenproletariat of the towns. Some of its recruits were reported to have been those who attempted to scab on the workers of Belfast in 1907. Lenin compared this force to the reactionary Black Hundred gangs organized by the Tsar to persecute the forces of the revolution in Russia in the period after the defeat of the 1905 revolution.
It is clear why such people have backed the loyalists. However, it is undoubtedly true that a broader section of the Protestant population, while not backing the military operations of the UVF, and while not participating in the mass rallies of Carson, sis express an opposition to Home Rule. Among those, for example, who signed Carson’s Covenant must be included sections of the Protestant workers. Socialists must be able to explain this situation.
Two major factors determined the attitude of the masses, particularly of the working class. The first was the character of the Home Rule movement and the second was the role which could be played by the labour movement.
The outburst of Orange sectarianism in 1911-14 was answered by an outburst of sectarianism, no less vile in its content, from nationalist politicians. After the demise and ultimately the death of Parnell the National League was splintered. The man who eventually emerged from the confusion as the new champion of nationalist Ireland was Redmond, a landlord in whom there existed not the slightest trace of sympathy for social agitation of any shape, size or form. It is said that one of the explanations for the purely halfhearted attempts of his party to extend the provisions of the 1903 Wyndham Land Act was the fact that Redmond personally stood to benefit greatly from the generous compensation terms it offered the landlords.
Part of the program of the Redmondite nationalists for Ireland was the demand that under Home Rule the British government should not continue to pay welfare benefits to the Irish. This should be in the hands of the Irish government. Effectively, with those of Redmond’s outlook presenting themselves as the future form of government, this was a call for the exclusion from Irish soil of the embryo which then existed of a welfare state.
With the triumph of Redmondism the process of dividing the Irish struggle into separate strands of interests was complete. Nationalism stood aside and apart from the struggle of the Irish people to remove the yoke of economic oppression. Moving to the right under the circumstances developing at this period, they could not but move in the direction of sectarianism. By 1914 Redmond stood at the head of the Irish Volunteers. The Order of Hibernians and the United Irish League, both of which had gained strength as wings of the Irish Parliamentary Party after the death of Parnell. Each strove to outdo the other in sectarianism.
One section of the AOH which gained a basis of support in Belfast adorned itself with the title “Board of Erin”. Primarily it was formed to protect Catholic small businessmen from the effects of racketeering in the city. In the event it became the instrument of the most vicious racketeering itself. One of the figures it could claim as a spokesman was “wee” Joe Devlin, later to emerge as a prime champion of the Catholic cause when the new Northern Ireland state was established after 1920. He was a man who, despite much flamboyant oratory to the contrary, played a part in ensuring that the cross of sectarianism remained tied to the backs of the working class. Devlin had shared platforms with that other “architect of nationalism” William Martin Murphy of 1913 fame. James Connolly summed up the Board of Erin when he described it as the “foulest brood which ever came into Ireland”.
Just as an illustration of the kind of fine sentiments being expressed by the Board of Erin leaders, it is work quoting a few of the words of one of its representatives, a Professor Kettle, who, at a meeting in Wexford, announced, following disorders, “for such of the Orange Dogs as may have survived the riot... they should be shot or hanged or sent into penal servitude.”
In opposition to the sectarianism of the right-wing nationalists there were a few moderates who, though no less conservative than the AOG breed, nevertheless recoiled from the blatant use of sectarianism. The leader of one such moderate splinter from the Parliamentary Party was William O’Brien. Of the sectarian Dillonite wing of the Nationalist Party he had this to day:
“They transformed the National party and National movement into one from which not only all Unionists but all Protestants were excluded ... by subjecting the National movement to the new ascendancy of a sham Catholic secret society ...”
In the end, rabid sectarianism won the day in such circles. Just as sections of the Protestant bourgeoisie who had been hesitant about the encouragement given to the Orange Order soon slipped into a minority, so too Green Toryism very quickly became Catholic Toryism and nothing more. Moving as it did to the right, avoiding the key social issues, it could not but have steered itself on such a sectarian course. In some cases this was a quite conscious move designed to break the unity of the working class. While Britain had invited, developed and deployed the art of “divide and rule”, right-wing nationalists proved no amateurs at repeating this tactic.
In the 1900s as in the 1960s and 1970s both Green and Orange Tories had one thing in common – hatred of labour and socialism. Connolly found his ideas attacked by Catholic bigots and equally fiercely by Protestant bigots. In 1913, 400 aluminium workers in Larne joined the ITGWU. These men were working a seven-day week. In July they struck. Without a moment’s hesitation the church intervened. Ministers spent their time delivering lectures lamenting the “ease” with which these men were deceived by a popish plot. Just as the Catholic children of Dublin were soon to be informed that starvation was preferable to risking their religion in Protestant homes, so the Protestant workers of Larne were now informed by their clerics that 84 hours’ back-creaking toil was preferable to the sin of listening to “papishes”.
On the opposite side the AOH devoted not a little of its propaganda to denouncing the evils of socialism and in particular attacking Connolly’s Socialist Party of Ireland. Another organization, founded in 1900, was Sinn Fein. This body likewise wasted no time in demonstrating that it took its stand with the Catholic businessmen, not with labour.
Its leader, Arthur Griffith, embodied in human frame both the aspirations and at the same time the weaknesses of large sections of the Southern Irish bourgeoisie. Griffith favoured tariff barriers behind which he dreamt that Irish capital could nurture itself. Like the bourgeoisie he had nothing to offer the struggle of the workers but venom. Rather he wished to see the English exploiters removed so that Irish exploiters would have a free hand in subjugating the population.
Sinn Fein published a newspaper, originally called the United Irishmen, but re-titled Sinn Fein in 1905. During the industrial battles of later years this journal denounced strikes, Larkinites, etc., and declared that strikes were an “English disease”. Griffith himself favoured the establishment of an Irish monarchy – a mere swapping of tyrants!
Men like Griffith and Redmond symbolized the weakness of native Irish capital. The small capitalist class who enjoyed an existence outside the Belfast area longed for an age when English capital would no longer dominate and curb their activities. Yet how could English capital be removed? Only by mobilizing the whole of society, including the workers and tenants. There lay the rub! For if the Southern capitalists resented English domination they were paralysed with fear of the Irish masses, and that fear counted a hundred times more in determining their role. Hence the Griffiths and the Redmonds, in the tradition of the Frattons, Floods, O’Connells and other middle-class and upper-class politicians, only led the national struggle in order to divert it away from the social issues so that some form or other of miserable compromise could be reached with imperialism. With wheeling and dealing they sought to dash the aspirations of their followers.
It takes no great mind whatsoever to understand why people of this ilk held no attraction whatsoever for the Protestant population of the North. With nationalism becoming synonymous with Catholicism and Green Toryism, even Protestant workers could be made to lean towards Unionism. As Connolly said in an article entitled Socialists and the Nation written as early as 1909, “When a Sinn Feiner waxes eloquent about restoring the Constitution of ’82, but remains silent about the increasing industrial despotism of the capitalist, when the Sinn Feiner speaks to men who are fighting against low wages and tells them that the Sinn Fein body has promised lots of Irish labour in Ireland, what wonder if they come to believe that a change from Toryism to Sinn Fein would simply change from the devil they know to the devil they do not know.”
The hostility of the Protestant workers to the Home Rule movement was not the hostility of the Carsons, Craigs, etc. Both were class hostility and, coming from opposite ends of the social spectrum, both reflected totally different fears. The fear of the Orange bosses was of the Protestant and Catholic workers. The fear of the Protestant workers was of the self-interest of the aspiring Southern bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.
Workers in Belfast inclined naturally to the industrial army in Liverpool, Glasgow and other major cities of Britain. In contrast, they looked to the rest of Ireland, and, with Dublin as the only major exception, they saw a largely agricultural country, with a nationalist leadership seeped in the reactionary mentality of the petty bourgeoisie. They saw from every corner the hostility of the nationalists to labour. What would happen to the unions, to the rights of labour, in an independent Ireland? These were the questions in the minds of the workers. Semi-conscious fears, they were given conscious expression by those who sought to sow the seeds of sectarian division.
Groups of trade unionists who supported the Union were organized by the Carsonites. In 1914 a group of Protestant trade unionists held a rally in the Ulster Hall to state their opposition to Home Rule. They attacked the Belfast Trades Council for its pro-Home Rule stance. A manifesto issued before the meeting attempted to explain their support for the anti-Home-Rule movement.
Its propaganda speaks volumes about the real attitudes of the workers. Learned treatises on the benefits of the Union from merchants, landowners and manufacturers could cut little ice. No exaltations about the link with UK capital could convince those who lived in the hovels and laboured in the workshops of industrial Belfast. Empty phrases about the “defence of the Protestant heritage and way of life” on their own could attract no mass support among the workers.
To be effective, the propaganda of Unionism had to be translated into class terms. Thus this manifesto had to couch its arguments in such terms as: “The Irish people under the Home Rule Bill can pass labour laws for Ireland... under an Irish parliament controlled by small farmers, the Factory Acts would remain a dead letter”. Also the following: “We know that the privilege won for the workers by trade unionism are in danger and that the loss of these privileges means the degradation of labour in Ireland, a result which sooner or later must do irreparable harm to the trade union movement in Britain.”
Thus the enemies of the working class, including the agents of sectarianism within their own ranks, attempted to dupe and mislead the masses. Only one could have allayed the fears of the workers and put an end to sectarianism – the labour movement. The Irish bourgeoisie were themselves divided and were capable only of dividing. In Connolly’s words, the struggle for freedom had become the struggle of the most subject class in society for freedom.
In the textbooks of the ruling class the issue at stake in this period was simply whether the Unionists could manage to destroy Home Rule or whether the nationalists would emerge with the prize of quasi-independence. In reality the question was whether the Irish working class, through the unions and labour organizations, would rise up quickly enough, and with the necessary leadership, to avert the disaster impending whichever section of the bosses got their way.
Only if the labour movement was in the forefront would the suspicions of the Protestant workers be removed. Only if there was a struggle for more than a mere change of flag or parliament could the working people be united and mobilized. It would have to be a fight for the ownership of industry, the ownership of land, the ownership of capital. Rather than weakening itself by steering away from these social questions, its very strength would derive from them. Nor would it be a fight for mere independence. By slicing the rope tying the Irish people to English capital, the workers of Ireland would be forging a chain firmly linking themselves to the movement of the British and the international working classes.
Recognizing this, Connolly spent the years up until 1914 to build the labour movement and push it to the forefront. His activities gave expression to the aspirations of the advanced sections of the working class throughout Ireland. He was not prepared to see labour sit back while rival property interests fought over the future of “the nation”, using working people as cannon fodder. Connolly recognized then, in an infinitely more difficult period for the young and barely tested workers’ movement, what many of his so-called followers today have miserably failed to understand – that all-class alliances are recipes for sectarian division among the working class.
His prime concern, at this time, was not to concoct unholy alliances with petty-bourgeois nationalists but rather to ensure that the struggle against British rule would be indelibly stamped with the demands of the workers’ organizations for workers’ rule.
His position was for independent action by all sections of the labour movement. When the nationalist Volunteers were beginning their campaign of armed marches, Connolly recognized the need for the workers organizations to keep their distance from such groups. After 1913 sections of the Citizen Army, including individuals at its head such as Captain White, argued for the merging of this body with the Irish Volunteers. Connolly fought all such efforts and succeeded in maintaining the tiny Citizen Army as the special armed wing of the trade union movement, guarding for example the premises of the ITGWU in Dublin.
Symptomatic of Connolly’s attitude was his attempt to crush sectarianism in the North. Faced with sectarian emblems, parades, bands, etc., he did not, unlike the Labour leaders of the 1960s and 1970s, throw up his hands in despair, wax eloquent about “tribal warfare”, and then permit the movement to roll over on its back and play dead. Rather he seized every opportunity for action.
The prominence of the Home Rule issue was used by the bosses to sow division among the workers. This, in 1912, the true target of the Carsonites and their fellows was shown to be the unity of the working class. Using an attack by AOH members on a Sunday school parade as a pretext, the bosses in the North incited sectarian attacks during the 12th of July celebrations of that year. As a result workers were expelled from the shipyards and from other industries. Socialists and Catholics, in that order, were the targets. Connolly reacted to this and other violence by organizing labour demonstrations. He even formed a non-sectarian Labour Band for the purpose. His answer to the July troubles was to march with labour banners and labour music through the centre of Belfast. It was intended as a physical expression of workers’ unity and of independent action by the labour organizations.
In 1913 Connolly stood as Labour candidate in the Dock ward in Belfast. Again, this bold determination to raise and push to the forefront the idea of labour unity articulated the urgent need felt by the most advanced sections of the working class for action in defiance of the sectarians. Reflecting this is the fact that Belfast Trades Council gave its official support to Connolly’s candidature. During this campaign Connolly was attacked by bigots on both sides, notable the AOH. In the end he polled 905 votes against 1523 won by the Unionist.
Similarly in 1914 Connolly pressed the ITUC to move on to the political sphere in order that the voice of labour could be more clearly heard throughout Ireland. Also at the 1914 Congress of the ITUC a motion condemning partition, again moved by Connolly, was passed, with only two delegates out of the 94 present voting against on the grounds that the motion was “political”, not on the grounds of supporting the carving of Ireland in two.
When Redmond and Devlin appeared to be prepared to accept such a compromise as the “temporary” partition of the country, Connolly warned that this “would perpetrate in a form, aggravated in evil, the discords now prevalent, and help the Home Rule and Orange capitalists and clerics to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watchwords of the day”.
In 1914 he urged intensive action on the part of labour to offset such an evil:
“Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the nationalist democracy of Industrial Ulster, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured. To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour should fight even to the death, if necessary, like out forefathers before us.”
The question whether the young labour movement could develop quickly enough to avert the catastrophe of any form of bosses’ solution to the Irish problem was not answered in this period. Before 1914 this movement was squaring up to the realities of class war on a scale never before witnessed in Ireland. The young proletariat revealed its strength and determination in these battles. It had a major asset in the revolutionary leadership beginning to develop in the form of Connolly and Larkin. But the movement was still young. Its political voice was not yet decisively raised. It had engaged in years of bitter and exhausting struggle and had emerged neither victorious nor routed. The task of Connolly and other socialists was made immense by these factors. To push to the foreground of the consciousness of the entire proletariat of Ireland the question of labour unity, to thwart the armed movement of the national struggle out of the hands of the right-wing nationalists and into the hands of workers’ organizations – these were no small objectives.
War, four years of indescribable carnage in pursuit of economic domination, cut across both the development of labour, and also the rise of the Unionist and nationalist armies. Whether labour could place itself at the head of the national struggle in time to avert whatever disaster would be imposed by the Redmonites, Carsonites or the British government – this question was postponed, not answered.
Last updated: 31.12.2010