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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland’s history of class struggle

(May 1985)

From Militant [UK], 24 May 1985.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Despite the good votes for the Labour and Trade Union Group candidates in the recent local elections, the voice of Labour in Northern Ireland is small compared to that of both orange and green sectarians. No doubt this fact will be used to add weight to the arguments of those who deny that labour and socialist ideas can take root in the North.

This is the view of the enemies of the working class and of the present right wing trade union leaders alike. It is a view which in fact displays a profound ignorance of the real history of the working class movement. The true history of Labour in the North, a history rich in struggle, has never been told. Instead popularised myths have become accepted as unquestionable fact. So with the myth propagated by the trade union leadership that it is impossible for their union to be involved in politics.

Yet it is exactly one hundred years since the first labour candidate, Alexander Bowman, stood in Belfast. The trade unions in the North, from their earliest times, were forced to turn to political action. As early as 1903, the Irish Trade Union Congress called for a Labour Party. In 1914 flesh was put on this call when a proposal that such a party be established was successfully moved by James Connolly, representing the Belfast Trades Council, at the ICTU Congress in Clonmel.

1919 Strike

In the years following the First World War the Irish working class moved into struggle. This was a period of unprecedented revolutionary upheaval marked by strikes, land seizures, factory occupations, the setting up of soviets in certain areas, and by limited general strikes. The working class in the North was infected by the militancy. In 1919 engineering workers in Belfast struck for four weeks demanding shorter hours. Through this dispute the working class of the city was drawn into confrontation with the employers and the state.

As with the miners today in Britain, the working class draws political lessons from such struggles. In Ireland workers tried to develop a political as well as an industrial arm. The 1920 local government elections saw Labour win 25% of the vote nationally. In Belfast 13 out of 38 Labour candidates were returned to the corporation. Leaders of the 1919 strike topped the poll as in St Anne’s (Sandy Row).

Quarter of votes

It was primarily in order to cut across this movement and stave off the prospects of revolution that the British ruling class resorted to partition. By dividing the country they succeeded partially and temporarily in dividing and derailing the working class movement.

Partition was a major defeat for the working class. It was possible, not because workers in Ireland are innately and fatally prey to sectarianism, but because the leaders of the Irish TUC and the Labour Party in the years after 1918 failed to give a class lead and place the working class at the head of the struggle against imperialism. Partition has given a further twist to the argument of the sceptics and cynics who write off Labour.

While admitting that workers may have united in struggle before 1921, the most common argument of such people is that the existence of the border since then has been an insurmountable barrier to class unity and socialism. Hence the position of Sinn Fein and other petty bourgeois nationalists that the Northern State must be destroyed before a socialist movement can be built.

It is true that partition ushered in fifty years of continuous Unionist rule. The first Prime Minister, Craigavon died in office in 1940. Four of his six cabinet ministers had served throughout this period.

This apparent stability disguises the reality. Within this state there was massive discontent which at times spilled over into enormous movements of opposition. A survey carried out in 1938–9 found that 36% of the population lived in conditions of absolute poverty. The Unionist majority was maintained not through popular support but by the whip of repression, by discrimination against the Catholic minority and through manipulation of sectarian division.

Contrary to the established myths, these methods did not succeed in stifling all class opposition. What stands out from the history of the working class, especially in its political history, is the ability of workers to absorb defeats and setbacks, overcome difficulties and resume the offensive.

It is a testimony to the strength of the labour and socialist tradition even then established that the working class very quickly began to recover from the blow of partition. In 1925, only four years after the division of the country, the newly reconstituted Northern Ireland Labour Party won three Stormont seats. One candidate, Jack Beattie, topped the poll in East Belfast with 9,000 votes. Much has been said about the monolith of “Unionism”. In fact this this so-called “monolith” began to crumble as soon as it was erected. Between 1921 and 1925 the total Unionist vote fell by 130,000.

The Unionists responded by abolishing PR for Stormont elections with the effect that in 1929, only one of the three Labour seats was held. This fact is loudly advertised in all the history books as proof of the ease with which the Unionists held off the Labour challenge. In fact it is no more than parliamentary trickery to dissolve a movement of social discontent such as was reflected in the Labour support. In any case Labour’s vote held up in 1929. The five NILP candidates polled a combined vote of 23,334 against 30,771 for their Unionist opponents.

Class discontent

Meanwhile in the 1929 local government elections Labour seats in Belfast were doubled to six. Four were [elected] in Newtownards and the party ended up holding the balance of power in Newry. Partially checked on the political plane the class discontent soon found an even more forceful expression. Agitation over unemployment and outdoor relief culminated in the outdoor relief strike of 1932 and the mighty display of working class unity to which this gave rise. But for the fact that the official trade union leaders refused to organise a general strike the Unionist administration could have been brought to its knees on this issue. Within months of the out-door relief strike the working class again took action, this time in the form of a four month long and extremely bitter railway strike at the beginning of 1933.

New confidence

During and after the Second World War the working class again moved from struggle in the industrial arena to political struggle. An upswing in the economy due to war production, strengthened the labour movement. Trade union membership rose from 85,000 in 1938 to 145,000 in 1945. The new confidence felt by workers prompted the two most important strikes of the war years anywhere in these islands. In 1942 and again in 1944 engineering workers in Belfast went on strike, the second dispute at one stage involving most of the city’s 70,000 engineering workforce.

Industrial revival boosted the Labour Party. 1943 saw the first ever Labour candidate returned to Westminster when Jack Beattie won a by-election in West Belfast. He got 19,936 votes while a republican candidate polled a miserable 1,250, confirming the socialist and labour tradition of West Belfast.

Immediately after the war the Labour Party, standing on its most radical ever programme, was swept to power in Britain. The same post war militancy was reflected in an historic surge in Labour’s support in the North.

It was not that Labour in the North was being carried forward on the back of the success in Britain. A Stormont election was held before the Westminster election. It was an election dominated by class issues.

So much so that in his pre-election address Prime Minister Basil Brooke tried to deflect Labour’s, support by the usual scaremongering tactics: “Many socialists and communists are equally hostile to the preservation of Ulster’s place within the UK. On this issue they are as much the enemies of Ulster as the Nationalists and Republicans”.

Brooke’s appeal fell flat. Despite its weak right wing leadership and its lack of a clear programme, Labour polled well, winning two seats, Oldpark and Dock while Beattie as unofficial Labour won Pottinger (East). His vote, plus that of the official Labour candidate, was almost double the Unionist vote.

The three Communist Party candidates again despite the right wing semi-Unionist propaganda of their party, polled magnificently, winning 12,456 votes. In the subsequent Westminster elections Labour won 65,000 votes.

One year later dramatic gains were made at local government level. Labour seats in Belfast were doubled to eight, plus a number of independent Labour. Seats were gained in areas which in some cases had never before been contested, let alone won – Bangor, Ballycastle, Ballyclare, Armagh, Ballymoney. Warrenpoint council ended up with a two seat Labour majority. Newry also was under Labour control.

Once again in the late 1950s and the 1960s, against a background of world economic upswing and relative lull in the class struggle internationally, there was an up-surge in class militancy in the North.

Unemployment became a central issue as the world boom largely bypassed the North. In 1961 10,000 workers were laid off by Harland and Wolffe. In 1961, 1962 and again in 1966 massive demonstrations were organised against unemployment. As class issues came to the fore the NILP benefitted. In 1958 it won four Stormont seats, all in Belfast. These were held in 1962 and in the 1964 general election Labour’s ten candidates drew a record 103,000 votes.

At the top the NILP was dominated by a right wing who held a semi-unionist position. But at base it was becoming filled out by trade union activists and radical youth who were seeking a socialist vehicle.

By the late 1960’s, on the eve of the first civil rights agitation, Labour was poised to develop into a formidable force. Where local Labour Parties stood on the left they, in some cases, were filled out by hundreds of workers and youth. The potential was unmistakeable.

NILP collapse

From a position of strength we now have a position where Labour does not even exist. From 100,000 votes for Westminster in 1970 NILP support crumbled to 4,411 in 1979. Surely this confirms the most commonly repeated argument of the sceptics – that Labour and class unity always disintegrate when sectarian issues like the border are raised?

Not so! In fact the reverse could be more forcefully stated – whenever the working class move into action the old sectarian forces and parties are paralysed. Thus no strike has ever been broken by sectarianism, not for lack of effort on the part of the bigots. Thus also Labour’s repeated electoral gains, as in 1945, have been won in the teeth of sectarian vitriol and against the denunciations of orange and green bigots.

It is true that each upsurge in political and industrial solidarity has ultimately been checked and that the sectarian and right wing parties have in the end come out on top. But sectarianism has not been the main factor. Rather, the movement has each time found itself halted by the role of this own leadership. Again and again it has been the mistakes and failings of both the Labour and trade union leaders which have given the opportunity to the bigots to go on the offensive.

Rather than withstand sectarianism the right wing leaders of the labour movement have tended to capitulate to it. Challenged on the issue of the border they have abandoned an independent class position and fallen into the camps of their enemies. The dominant outlook among these leaders has been “Walkerism”, after William Walker, an early advocate of Labour Unionism whose “loyalty” to the crown proved greater than his loyalty to the working class.

Commonwealth Labour

Walker ultimately deserted the labour movement and in 1912 accepted a government position under Lloyd George. His tradition was maintained in the NILP by the likes of Harry Midgley who split from official Labour to form Commonwealth Labour during the war and who in 1947 joined the Unionist Party and also the Orange Order. It was also upheld by David Bleakley whose first outings as a Labour candidate in 1949 saw him canvass wearing red, white and blue rosettes and who in 1971 was a token member of the Unionist cabinet which introduced internment. On the other hand there have been those who, rejecting a socialist viewpoint, fell in the trap of tail-ending the nationalists.

Two examples illustrate the disastrous consequences for the working class of the abandonment by its leaders of socialist ideas and class solutions. In 1949 the Unionists used the pretext of the declaration of a Republic by the South to call a snap “border” election. The issue was posed by them as – for or against. They were assisted by a sectarian campaign by anti-partition candidates whose tactics earned the campaign the nickname the chapel gate election.

Labour, rather than holding to its own socialist principles of unity only on a socialist basis, tried to outplay the sectarians at their own game. The official party tried to out-Unionise the Unionists, even professing their loyalty. It was a tactic from which the bigots always emerge on top. One symbolic incident sums up their efforts. When a loyalist crowd tried to disrupt a Labour election rally in Belfast by singing the national anthem, the speaker responded by joining in the singing. His enemies were not impressed and the meeting was broken up.

On the other side candidates standing as Anti-Partition Labour did an electoral deal with the nationalist Anti-Partition League and were seen as its left face. Nor was the movement in the North assisted by the fact that the Irish Labour Party was a partner in the capitalist government which introduced the change in the constitution of the Southern state, and was participating in a joint campaign with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael on the question. In the end the Labour vote was 26,831 – a fall from nearly 80,000 in 1945.

Again in 1968–69 it was the failure of the right wing trade union and Labour leaders which opened the way for sectarian reaction. As soon as the civil rights campaign took on flesh they ran for cover, leaving it mainly in the hands of the nationalists, green Tories and assorted opportunists who were to become the SDLP.

The trade union leaders seized the opportunity to pull back from political involvement. It is really from this period that the idea of non-political trade unionism, now held sacrosanct by the leaders of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, stem.


The NILP leaders distanced themselves from the civil rights agitation by exorcising and eventually expelling those of their members and branches who were involved in it. Through the early 1970s the NILP leaders either said nothing or else supported the repressive methods of the British government.

As membership and support fell away the party moved further to the right, ultimately falling into the embrace of the loyalist paramilitaries. In 1974 its leadership disgraced itself entirely when leading spokesmen gave support to the reactionary Ulster Workers Council stoppage. One executive member was actually an advisor to the UWC during the strike.

On the other side a section of the party, including some of its left wing, fell under the spell of right wing nationalism. Stormont MP, Paddy Devlin deserted to help form the SDLP in 1970. A number of others on the left, like Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann, chose to write off Labour as a force and ended up tail ending the republican paramilitary groups.

The NILP disintegrated because its leadership chose to bend under pressure from either sectarian camp. If the Labour Party in 1949 or over the past twenty years had stood its ground fighting for a socialist solution, the course of history would have been very different. Against the green and orange bigots Labour should have fought for class unity, and for a united class struggle for jobs, houses, decent wages, against discrimination and repression.

To the capitalist alternatives of either partition or capitalist reunification, neither of which is a real alternative or a solution, Labour should have counter-posed the struggle for socialism, North and South, leading to socialist reunification. In place of the capitalist link with Britain, Labour should have advanced the position of socialist internationalism – for a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

That the labour and trade union leaders have failed to stand firm and resolutely fight for such a programme is the main explanation of the dominance of the Paisleys, Humes and Co. today. Yet the history of the working class shows the true potential for the building of a mighty socialist movement.

Again and again the working class have moved to struggle. Even under the most difficult circumstances, the tendency to class unity, to industrial and also political struggle has never been broken. From its lowest points, after partition, and in 1949, Labour has always revived as economic hardship moved workers into action.

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