James Connolly


The United Irish League, the Labour Party,
and “the Pleasant Relations”

(3 May 1913)

From Forward, 3 May 1913. [1]
Copied with thanks from the Workers Liberty Website.
Transcription & HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One of the earliest of the pioneers of the modern Socialist movement in Scotland – poor Bob Hutchinson – whose death was recorded in Forward some months ago, was wont to say on Glasgow Green when interrupted by some of the rival gangs of Irish disputants – “The Irish question, do you say! Why, we are all Irish, only some of you came here nine months ago, and some nine hundred years ago”.

This somewhat sweeping generalisation as to the component elements of the population of Scotland rises to my mind when writing these notes from Ireland. It, I hope, is sufficiently true to lend to these notes an interest which cannot be inspired by the writer, whose personality is unknown to the majority of the readers, and it is sufficiently untrue to permit of the possibility of writing of Ireland as of a country unknown to the readers and thus in enlisting his or her curiosity.

The present writer has spent great portion of his life alternating between interpreting Socialism to the Irish, and interpreting the Irish to the Socialists. Of the two tasks, I confess, that while I am convinced that the former has been attended with a considerable degree of success, the latter has not. At least as far as the Socialists of Great Britain are concerned, they always seem to me to exhibit towards the Irish working-class democracy of the Labour movement the same inability to understand their position as to share in their aspirations as the organised British nation as a whole has shown to the struggling Irish nation it has so long held in subjection.

No one, and least of all the present writer, would deny the sympathy of the leaders of the British Labour movement towards the Labour and Socialist movements of Ireland, but a sympathy not based upon understanding is often more harmful than a direct antagonism. A case in point will serve to illustrate my meaning as well as to provide a guide and a warning for the future.

Upon the passing of the Local Government Act establishing household suffrage for the municipalities and local governing bodies of Ireland, in 1898, the Trades Councils, and other trades bodies all over this country proceeded to form independent Labour Electoral Associations for the purpose of running Labour candidates against the nominees of both the orthodox Irish political parties.

At once, as was natural, the Capitalist politicians took fright, and in press and on platform the Irish workers were denounced for daring to abandon their “natural leaders”.

But the Irish workers-who knew the Irish political cliques and their leaders at first hand, and appraised them accordingly at their just value, went on with the nomination of their candidates, practically every trades council in this country being actively engaged in the work of fighting for Independent Labour Representation.

The small British Socialist press which then existed had given up till this a cordial approval of this hopeful development of the political side of the Irish Labour movement,

But so ominous did this movement appear to the interests which control the Home Rule Party that eventually the present leader of that Party took the field against it, and in a carefully reported speech, declared that “Labour and Nationality must march together”, meaning as all his hearers knew, as everybody in Ireland knew, that Labour must abandon its political adventure as a separate cause, and must be content to seek its fortunes as a subordinate issue in the Home Rule camp.

Labour in Ireland did not pay much attention to this pronouncement against it, but the responsible leaders of the Labour movement in Great Britain immediately seized upon this phrase and in press and on platform it was heralded in that country as a “magnificent pronouncement of the Irish Party in favour of Labour”.

A more ridiculous perversion of fact it would be hard to conceive, but all during these fiercely contested Local Government elections in Ireland; where Irish MPs were brought down in shoals into the municipal wards to fight against the nominees of the Irish Trades, these same MPs had no better weapons in their armouries than the eulogies which in England were being lavished by responsible Labour men upon the Home Rule leaders – eulogies based upon and only made possible by a wresting of the language of a politician from all relation to the circumstances which inspired it.

If some one had said in England that “Labour and Liberalism must march together”, no one would have or could have construed it into a declaration of Liberalism in favour of the Labour movement, but all would have recognised it as a declaration against that political independence of Labour which is the very essence of the movement. So it was with the former declaration in Ireland, but the British Socialists, accustomed to think of the Home Rule Party as a minority party, utterly misunderstood its attitude and language when speaking in Ireland as a majority party deprecating all political activities not under the control of its officials.

This is but one sample out of many that could be quoted of the difficulty of making the comrades in Great Britain understand the totally different conditions in Ireland, and also understand that these conditions naturally produce catch-words, phrases and rallying cries which bear no relation to the conditions which prevail in Great Britain.

The Labour Party in Parliament tries to surmount this difficulty by, so to speak, establishing Home Rule in its relation with Ireland. Thus if a trades body in Ireland writes to the Labour Party asking that a certain question be raised in Parliament, if that question pertains to a district represented by a member of the Home Rule Party, the answer sent to the trades body generally is that the question has been turned over to the Irish Party: and that should that party raise it in the House, the Labour Party will support it.

As the Irish Party desires to pose in Ireland as opposed to all class divisions and as a cold matter of fact is generally bossed locally by small sweating employers, slum landlords and publicans, the MP from the district never brings the question up, and the incident never is made public, but only serves to accentuate “the pleasant relations which exist in the House between the Irish Party and Labour”. Ahem!

As a result of these “pleasant relations”, there was no one in the House to fight for the inclusion of Ireland in the Meals for Necessitous School Children Act, and thus while reformers in England are now fiercely fighting for the right to feed children during holidays, the school children of Ireland are yet denied the primary right of being fed during school hours.

A threat from the Labour Party to wreck the Insurance Bill unless Ireland was included in the Medical Benefits would have secured that, the best part of the Act, for Ireland, but that would have disturbed the pleasant relations also, and Ireland was left out, and a totally inadequate, unworkable Act without that provision foisted upon this country.

Ireland is to-day the battle-ground almost daily of fierce industrial disputes. In these disputes there are continual outrages by a police and constabulary over whom no popularly elected body in city or country exercise the smallest control, but in no case are these outrages upon Labour made the subject of Parliamentary questions by the Irish parties. Strikers arrested in industrial disputes are tried and sentenced by resident magistrates drawn entirely from the possessing classes, but although their findings and sentences are usually a travesty upon law and an outrage upon justice, the smug serenity of our lawmakers is never troubled by any question pertaining thereto.

Labour and Nationality now as in 1898 are marching together (in Parliament) and the fierce battles of the labourer in the towns of Ireland for bread must not disturb their pleasant relations.

O, yes, the Home Rulers are great democrats – in England; great friends of Labour – in England; heroic defenders of the common people – in England. But in Ireland. Ah! that is another matter.

During the lock-out of the girls in Carroll's Tobacco Works at Dundalk at the beginning of last year, a girl picket was arrested for striving to induce another girl not to blackleg. She was summarily tried and sentenced to prison on a charge of “indecent conduct in the streets”. No unclean language or action had been attributed to her, and the police evidence simply stated that she had persisted in picketing, yet the cold-blooded scoundrelism of the authorities framed a charge against her calculated to blast her character and ruin her whole life. If she had been a daughter of an Irish farmer fighting an Irish landlord in Land League days, the then Irish Party would have made the world ring with their denunciations of such character assassinations, but she was only an Irish working girl fighting an Irish employer, and none of the Irish heroes who on the platforms of the Liberal Party in England are fighting for the “Glory of God and the Honour of Erin” had time to waste on such as she.

Small wonder that we in Ireland are working to establish a Labour Party of our own. We have no fault to find with the Labour Party in Great Britain. We recognise that it has its own problems to face, and that it cannot well be expected to turn aside to grapple with ours. And, Heaven knows, these problems are serious enough to require the most earnest study and undivided attention of men on the spot. They require more study and attention than can be given by men absorbed in the urgent problems of the greater population across the water.

From time to time in these Notes I propose to give some attention to the elucidation of the problems peculiar to Ireland and particularly to this part of it. For the present, it is sufficient to emphasise the fact that the religious affiliations of the population of Ulster determine their political leanings to a greater extent than is the case in any part of Europe outside the Balkans. But the manner in which this has developed is also unique. I believe that it is true to say that, politically speaking, the Protestantism of the North of Ireland has no parallel outside this country, and that the Catholicism of the Irish Catholics is, likewise, peculiar in its political trend.

To explain – I mean that, whereas, Protestantism has in general made for political freedom and political Radicalism, it has been opposed to slavish worship of kings and aristocrats. Here, in Ireland, the word Protestant is almost a convertible term with Toryism, lickspittle loyalty, servile worship of aristocracy and hatred of all that savours of genuine political independence on the part of the “lower classes”.

And in the same manner, Catholicism which in most parts of Europe is synonymous with Toryism, lickspittle loyalty, servile worship of aristocracy and hatred of all that savours of genuine political independence on the part of the lower classes, in Ireland is almost synonymous with rebellious tendencies, zeal for democracy, and intense feelings of solidarity with all strivings upward of those who toil.

Such a curious phenomenon is easily understood by those who know the history of Ireland. Unfortunately for their spiritual welfare – and I am using the word “spiritual”, not in its theological but in its better significance as controlling mental and moral development upward – the Protestant elements of Ireland were, in the main, plantation of strangers upon the soil from which the owners had been dispossessed by force. The economic dispossession was, perforce, accompanied by a political and social outlawry. Hence every attempt of the dispossessed to attain citizenship, to emerge from their state of outlawry, was easily represented as a tentative step towards reversing the plantation and towards replanting the Catholic and dispossessing the Protestant.

Imagine this state of matter persisting for over 200 years and one re”alises at once that the planted population – the Protestants – were bound to acquire insensibly a hatred of political reform and to look upon every effort of the Catholic to achieve political recognition as a insidious move towards the expulsion of Protestants. Then the Protestant always saw that the kings and aristocrats of England and Ireland were opposed by the people whom he most feared and from recognising that it was but an easy step to regard his cause as identical with theirs. They had a common enemy, and he began to teach his children that they had a common cause, and common ideals.

This is the reason – their unfortunate isolation as strangers holding a conquered country in fee for rulers alien to its people – that the so-called Scotch of Ulster have fallen away from and developed antagonism to political reform and mental freedom as rapidly as the Scots of Scotland have advanced in adhesion to these ideals.

The Catholics, for their part, and be it understood I am talking only of the Catholic workers, have been as fortunately placed for their political education as they were unfortunately placed for their political and social condition. Just as the Socialist knows that the working class, being the lowest in the Social system, cannot emancipate itself without as a result emancipating all other classes, so the Irish Catholic has realised instinctively that he, being the most oppressed and disfranchised, could not win any modicum of political freedom or social recognition for himself without winning it for all others in Ireland. Every upward step of the Catholic has emancipated some one of the smaller Protestant sects; every successful revolt of the Catholic peasant has given some added security even to those Protestant farmers who were most zealously defending the landlord. And out of this struggle the Catholic has, perforce, learned toleration. He has learned that his struggle is, and has been, the struggle of all the lowly and dispossessed, and he has grown broad-minded with the broad-mindedness of the slave in revolt against slavery.

But with the advent of Home Rule, nay even with the promise of Home Rule and the entrance of Ireland upon the normal level of civilised, self-governing nations, the old relation of Protestant and Catholic begins to melt and dissolve, and with their dissolution will come a new change in the relation of either faith to politics. The loss of its privileged position will mean for Protestantism the possibilities of an immense spiritual uplifting; and emergence into a knowledge of its kinship with its brothers and sisters of different creeds. Whether the entrance of Catholicity into a position of mere numerical voting power will lead, in its turn, to a withering up of those kindly feelings born of its past sufferings is another matter. I do not believe that it will, at least amongst the toilers. Our apprenticeship to misery has been too long, our journeyings in the desert of slavery have surely implanted in our breasts a sense of the criminality of any attempt to impose fetters upon others such as we ourselves have worn. And out of that belief the writer looks forward with confidence to the future believing that the tale these Notes from Ireland will have to tell will be a hopeful one, even if the hope is nurtured amid storm and stress.

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Note by Workers Liberty

1. This article from Forward, 3 May 1913, was published in part – the last third or so, starting with “From time to time in these Notes ...” – under the headline Catholicism, Protestantism and Politics in the 1975 pamphlet Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table.


Last updated on 25 March 2022