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Peter Hunt

Maintain ICTU Unity

(February 1978)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 60, February 1978.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

On December 16th a special conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was held in Liberty Hall in Dublin to discuss the structure and finances of ICTU. Most unions sent relatively full delegations because of a series of proposals to amend the ICTU constitution which had been put forward by the Dublin based Institute of Professional Civil Servants. But at the last minute the IPCS decided to withdraw its amendments.

Basically the IPCS were suggesting that a Southern Conference and Southern Executive be set up to deal with matters of “sole concern” to the South. With the Northern Conference and Northern Ireland Committee assuming full responsibility for the affairs of the North, the powers of the ICTU annual conference would be reduced to those “matters of common concern”.

Presently the Executive Committee is elected at the annual conference. Were the IPCS to have been successful in getting their proposed procedures adopted the all Ireland Executive would be formed by simply merging the executives elected at the separate Northern and Southern conferences. The President of one of these bodies would then become the President also of Congress. These proposals spelled danger for the trade union movement. In 1894 Irish Trade Unionists, almost entirely belonging to British based unions set up their own union structure, the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC).

During the first decades of this century the explosive and revolutionary growth of trade unionism through the organisation of unskilled workers propelled the ITUC forward. The 1907 strike in Belfast and the drawn battle between Dublin Labour and the Dublin employers in 1913 announced the arrival of the Irish working class on the scene of history.


Irish Labour strode forward at precisely the same time when all the various interests of the bosses resulted in the most concerted attempts to set worker against worker along sectarian lines. While “New Unionism” developed, the political scene was dominated by the struggles for Home Rule. During this period there were split offs from the British based unions. Some Irish craft unions were formed to rival the British craft unions. The role of the leadership of the Dockers’ union in Britain during the 1907 strike drove the strike leader, James Larkin, to form a separate organisation the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Because the struggle waned in the North after the exhausting experience of 1907 the ITGWU found its recruits overwhelmingly in the Southern area of the country.

Thus a complex situation arose whereby both British and Irish based unions operated a situation complicated further by the fact that the bulk of the British based unions concentrated their membership in the North.

Yet despite the political turmoil and the repeated attacks from bigots on both sides trade union unity survived. The first Home Rule crisis not only failed to drive the movement back – it actually drove it forward. Under the shadow of the military preparations of Unionists and nationalists after 1912 the revolutionary leaders within the union structure strove to free their organisations from the lingering cocoon of craft prejudice. In 1912 James Connolly succeeded in persuading the ITUC to become the ITUC and Labour Party.

Because of the lack of any clear leadership Partition became a factor in holding back the political wing of the movement from developing on an all-Ireland basis. But the pogroms directed against Catholic workers and socialists in the unions in 1920, orchestrated by Carson and other Unionist leaders, failed in their purpose of destroying the effectiveness of trade union organisation.

Unionist bigots have not been the only people to present a threat. In the 1930’s and the 1940’s the growth of so-called radical nationalism in the absence of any clear alternative from Labour was the propaganda of Fianna Fail. The growth of a tendency within unions in the South opposing the existence in Ireland of British based unions, was encouraged by the Fianna Fail bosses and other enemies of the working class.

1945 brought an actual split in the ITUC. A group broke away to form the Congress of Irish Unions (CIU) allowing the shallow line of nationalism to set worker apart from worker. But this division did not destroy the all-Ireland unity of the unions. The ITUC continued to operate North and South. It was between Southern unions that the split occurred.

Reunification talks during the 1950s culminated in the formation in 1959 of a re-united body known as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) with basically the structure which exists today.

Apart from the existence of Irish and British based unions another peculiar feature of the trade union structure is the existence of a separate Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU. In 1942 the ITUC set up a Northern Ireland Committee with limited powers. Following re-unification of the two congresses in 1959 this body was adopted and during the early 1960’s its role was slightly extended.

But it was not in order to appease any possible breakaway movement in the North that the NIC was established. Rather it was as an attempt to gain recognition from the Unionist Government who were adamantly refusing to talk to representatives of the Irish trade unions. During the 1960’s pressure was put on the unionists from big business who wanted to draw trade union representatives onto committees, launching the Northern Ireland Economic Council and by way of these sops “buy” a period of harmonious industrial relations.

The trade union leaders were prepared to go part of the way to meet the unionists and thus it was that the powers of the NIC were extended in return for eventual recognition and an annual grant.


Thus the demand for separate representation in the North did not grow out of the ranks of the trade union movement. But once made it provided ammunition to bigots within and outside the unions. “Under representation” of the Northern Ireland Committee has been allowed to become an issue. Loyalist bigots during and after the 1974 UWC stoppage argued for the formation of a separate Ulster TUC.

These are the elements within the unions who are determined that the road the unions must take is towards a separation of North from South. In reality such a road is merely an ammunition belt for bigotry. The way would be opened for religious division to succeed in drawing apart the trade union structures in the North. A less polite but more accurate name for the Ulster TUC is a “Protestant TUC”.

It is in this context that all demands for restructuring must be examined. Do they assist in the preservation of the historical bond which throughout this century has maintained organisational unity in the trade unions North and South? Or are they concessions which will lead in the opposite direction? Of course many of those seeking restructuring for example the IPCS, will argue that their ideas are put forward purely for “trade union reasons” – to create a more effective structure. But the trade union structure exists in the real world. Proposed changes to it can only be considered in terms of the actual effect they would have, all factors being taken into account.

Throughout the recent period the existence of sectarianism in the North has made the relevance of all Ireland Trade Union unity seem questionable to many workers. During such a period trade union activists who instinctively felt the need for such unity and solidarity were on the defensive.

Now sectarianism is on the wane. More and more industrial struggles are drawing workers north and south together. The need for cross border unity will be demonstrated in increasing strike movements on a 32 County basis. The collection by Dublin firemen for their striking brothers on the other side of the border is only a faint etching of the patterns which must become established in the future.

At such a time it is the height of absurdity to begin making concessions to bigotry. And yet this is precisely the effect the proposals of the IPCS would have had. What would be the actual structure of ICTU if their demands were met? The all Ireland congress would deal with international affairs and little else. A worker from Belfast would have no right to cast a vote in favour of a trade union leader from Dublin. This would have meant in the past that Northern workers would not have been able to vote for someone like James Larkin to sit on the Executive.

Unions would respond by sending limited delegations to the all Ireland congress which would shrink to diminutive proportions. To all intents and purposes the ICTU would be severed in two.


The argument that there are matters of “sole concern” to workers of the North or of the South is a fallacy produced within the narrow margins of the bureaucratic brain. The living conditions, wages and all the problems of working people of the Sooth are matters of concern to workers of the North and vice versa. The solution to these problems is a matter of common concern. For this reason alone unity must be maintained.

Yet no-one would argue that the trade union movement or its structure is perfect. Unions are encrusted by bureaucracy. Many officials spend more time resisting the demands of their members than they do fighting the employers. Inter-union rivalries are caused by overlapping areas of membership, particularly among the general unions. Splits and breakaways have accentuated these rivalries.

Rationalisation of this structure is possible – if carried out by the trade union movement itself. In addition a democratisation of the unions is essential to transform them into fighting weapons in the hands of their members. When the unions are not fully effective the bigots are provided with a point of attack. They can promise that with a different structure things would be different. All full-time officials should be elected and should be subject to recall.

They should be paid the average wage of the workers they represent. In each union activists should fight for lay representatives to make up the overwhelming majority to ICTU conferences the voice of the shop floor would ensure that the conference debates dealt with the realities of the class struggle.

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