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Peter Hadden

Labour’s Hidden Past: An answer to sectarian myths

(March 1992)

From Militant, No. 205, March 1992.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

From their earliest times, the trade unions in the North 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.

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.

1920 Elections

These upheavals inevitably had political repercussions. In Ireland, workers tried to develop a political arm 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).

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 inherently 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.


The fact of partition in turn reinforced the arguments of those sceptics and cynics who wrote 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 1938–39 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 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 traditions, 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 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 takes 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. Five NILP candidates polled a combined vote of 23,334 against 30,771 for their Unionist opponents.

Meanwhile in the 1929 local government elections, Labour seats in Belfast were doubled to six. Four seats were won 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.

Outdoor Relief

Within months of the outdoor relief strike the working class again moved, this time in the form of a four month long and extremely bitter railway strike at the beginning of 1933. 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. The fact that he got 19,936 votes, while a republican candidate polled a miserable 1.250, confirmed 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 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 that 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 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, and Ballymoney. Warrenpoint council ended up with a two seat Labour majority. Newry was also under Labour control.

Once again in the late 1950s and the 1960s, against a background of world economic upswing and relative lull in the c1ass struggle internationally, there was an upsurge in class militancy in the North.


Unemployment became a central issue as the world boom largely by-passed 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 1960s, 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 unmistakable.

Yet today no mass Labour Party exists and socialist groups like the Labour & Trade Union Group are forced to struggle to build it from scratch. From 100,000 votes for Westminster in 1970 NILP support crumbled to 4,411 in 1979. Surely this confirms the most commonly repeated arguments of the sceptics – that Labour and class unity will 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 a lack of effort on the part of the bigots. Thus also Labours repeated electoral gains, as in 1945, have been won in the teeth of sectarian vitriol and against the denunciations of orange and green bigots.

Leader’s mistakes

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 hailed by the role of its own leadership. Again and again it has been the mistakes and failure of both 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.

Walker ultimately deserted the labour movement and in 1912 accepted a government 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 up- held by David Bleakly whose first outings as a Labour candidate in 1949 saw him 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 into 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-Unionist 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 the 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 sacred by the NIC-ICTU leaders stems.


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 UWC 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 nationalism. Executive member and Stormont MP, Paddy Devlin, deserted to help form the SDLP in 1970. A number of others on the left, like Michael Farrell and Eamon 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 tight for such a programme is the main explanation for 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 political struggle, has never been broken. From its lowest points, after partition, and in 1949, Labour has always revived as economic hardship has moved workers into action.

Political Voice

So it will be in the future. Economic crisis, falling living standards, cuts in services, etc. – there is ample fuel for a class movement. Huge industrial battles on a par with the recent miners’ strike are inevitable under these conditions. Out of these, the working class will seek to build its own political voice to replace the Tories and bigots who have nothing to offer.

Every negative has its positive. The collapse of the NILP spawned the Labour and Trade Union Group. This body emerged in 1974/5 from the left and trade union wings of the NILP. It has consistently campaigned for a rank and file conference of the track union and labour movement to re-establish a genuine Labour Party.

No experience of the working class, even the most bitter defeat, is entirely wasted. provided the lessons arc learnt for the future. The Labour and Trade Union Group, particularly the supporters of Militant within it, have analysed the lessons of the past and drawn the appropriate conclusions. The factor which has always been missing, a leadership capable of taking the movement forward, is being built. The tasks of socialists now is to struggle to create a trade union based party of Labour and to make sectarian headcounts, such as this general election threatens to be, a thing of the past.

But more, it is to equip that party with a socialist leadership which will unflinchingly oppose the bigots, orange and green. Labour could then fulfil the potential it has shown so often. It could destroy the old parties and emerge as the major political force in the North.

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