With the arrival of the working class as a force sufficiently strong to make its independent mark on history, the potential for unity of Catholic and Protestant in the north east and of workers throughout Ireland was put on a new and higher level. This arrival was signalled at the beginning of the 1890s by the first stirrings of the unskilled. A wave of militancy was sweeping the industrial workplaces of Britain as the unskilled and previously unorganised formed unions. Now efforts were made to bring this new unionism to Ireland. Organisers from the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) and the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers (NUGGL) came over to help Irish unions organise. In the case of the latter it was Eleanor Marx who came, visiting Derry in 1891 to assist with the organisation of the shirt factories.
Sixty nine strikes were reported in 1890, up from thirty in 1889. In 1892 Belfast Trades Council organised a march of 12,000 in support of linen lappers who were locked out for five weeks by their employers. Catholic and Protestant bands took part, stewards wore orange and green rosettes – a forerunner of the ‘non-sectarian labour band’ which James Connolly would parade in Belfast some twenty years later.
Also in 1892 building tradesmen went on strike – successfully. There were strikes by dockers in ports around the country, the most bitter in Belfast, where a dispute dragged on for four months. This was a precursor to the great 1907 strike by Belfast dockers and carters. Two years later came the seven week strike by linen workers mentioned earlier.
Out of this the Irish Trades Union Congress was founded in April 1894. Last year (1994) the centenary of this event was celebrated – by a trade union leadership who, are not only a hundred years removed, but are worlds removed from the traditions of struggle which created the first trade union centre in Ireland.
The current ICTU leadership who shrink away from politics and who embrace the market economy with open arms, need to be reminded that the 1895 ITUC congress voted to establish a political fund and that, in 1898, it adopted a call for the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. These resolutions were not acted upon, although Belfast Trades Council courageously and successfully took the first steps to an independent political voice for Labour by fielding candidates in local elections.
This first wave of new unionism was unsuccessful. Most of the strikes were defeated, militancy declined and the new unions withered to little more than bridgeheads for the future. But as the 1905 revolution in Russia was a dress rehearsal for October 1917, so these pioneering struggles were a preface for mightier movements to come.
New unionism’s second offensive began in Belfast in June 1907 when recently arrived NUDL organiser James Larkin called out 500 dockers. From these beginnings a bitter dispute developed with carters and coalmen coming out. There was clear sympathy and support from other sections of the working class in the city. As Catholic and Protestant workers united it was the forces of sectarianism and of the state which began to fracture. Police, who found themselves used to protect scabs and help break the strike, mutinied in protest at their own workload, hours and conditions. Even Belfast’s Orangemen were divided, with the Independent Orange Order, whose membership was almost exclusively from the working class, giving support to Larkin.
Eventually the strike was settled by the intervention of the British leadership of the NUDL – and on less favourable terms than Larkin thought might have been achieved. There were other struggles in Belfast – notably the 1911 mill workers dispute in which Connolly played an important role – but after 1907 the active focus of the discontent moved elsewhere.
A wave of strikes across much of Ireland in 1911 saw workers turn to the recently formed Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), Larkin’s answer to the betrayal by NUDL leaders in 1907. By the end of 1911 it had 18,089 members, 13,009 of whom had joined that year. Employers responded with lockouts to break the union. 550 ITGWU members were locked out in Wexford from August 1911 until February 1912. In August 1913 the Dublin employers, led by William Martin Murphy, attempted a similar tactic.
The Dublin Lockout was an unforgettable chapter in the history of the Irish labour movement. Under Larkin’s leadership, and that of Connolly, the Dublin workers stood firm by the union. Against them were pitted not just the employers but the state and the Catholic hierarchy. It polarised society in Ireland and beyond. Even George Bernard Shaw, speaking at a rally in London, advised the workers to arm themselves.
The strikers did, in fact, respond to physical attacks by setting up a worker’s militia. Known initially as the Transport Union Citizen Army it soon became known simply as the Citizen’s Army.
1907 had divided Protestant sectarian organisations along class lines. Now the ‘nation’ and the ‘nationalist movement’ were similarly divided. Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) leader, Joe Devlin, called for Catholic unions. Arthur Griffith, leader of Sinn Fein, denounced the lockout complaining that Irish workers were only inflicting damage on Irish industry. It lasted until February 1914 when it ended, more as a draw than a clear victory for either side. Although the workers were starved back to work the union remained. The new unions for general workers this time were there to stay.
Like the struggles of the 1890s this new surge of militancy had its political effects. In 1912 the TUC passed a motion, moved by Connolly, calling for a Labour Party to be set up. The decision was reaffirmed in 1914 – Congress that year voted to change its title to the Irish TUC and Labour Party (ITUC&LP).
These events took place against the backcloth of the Home Rule crisis, the mobilisation of unionist and nationalist militias and the seeming threat of civil war. This was an argument fought out in the capitalist terms of which set of bosses do you want to exploit you, which set of gangsters should rule you, and as such could only polarize and divide Protestant worker from Catholic.
The emergence of the working class as an independent force offered the alternative of a struggle against all exploitation, a struggle for independence, for socialism and also for internationalism.
The challenge facing the labour movement was to place itself at the head of the struggle for national liberation and in so doing restore to that struggle a social content. If it could succeed in this it would have the possibility to unite the vast majority of the Irish people against imperialism and against capitalism, just as, at an earlier stage of historical development, the United Irishmen had united the mass of the people against colonialism and against landlordism.
The outbreak of war in Europe left the question whether or not this challenge would be faced unanswered. Instead there followed a period in which all the conflicts brewing in Ireland were put on hold. Redmondite nationalists and Carsonite unionists put their differences to the side as both their leaders became energetic crusaders for the war effort. The class struggle entered a period of ebb.
It was in this situation that Connolly egged on the paltry forces of revolutionary nationalism to take part alongside the Citizen’s Army in the Easter Rising of 1916. It was intended by Connolly to be a blow which would inspire workers in Europe to rise against the imperialist slaughter taking place in the trenches. The idea that it would detonate a broader movement in Ireland or in Europe was a forlorn hope, as Connolly himself almost certainly knew. The fault of the rising was that it was premature. A deep anti-war sentiment had not yet developed – indeed many in Dublin who spat on the defeated insurgents did so because they saw them as having stabbed the soldiers in the trenches in the back. It was only the vengeful programme of executions which changed the popular mood in Ireland to one of sympathy. But by then Connolly had been executed and the Irish working class deprived of its greatest leader – this on the eve of events in which he could have made his greatest contribution.
The Easter Rising did leave an imprint on the consciousness of the working class of the southern part of Ireland at least. But at the time it was isolated and did not precipitate further movements.
Last updated: 4.1.2011