The final two years of the war saw the beginnings of a revival of the class struggle in Ireland. The ITGWU began to reorganise itself, in 1917 breaking new ground with the recruitment of agricultural workers. Then, in 1918, a tremendous new offensive movement of the working class, surpassing anything which had gone before, was begun. It is difficult to place precise dates, like parentheses, around such a movement. Inevitably it had its prehistory and its aftershocks, but generally we can say that from April 1918 to the middle part of 1920 this movement was in the ascendant. This period saw the highest expression of the class struggle which the Irish working class have yet attained.
Yet the outcome was not socialist revolution, but partition. The modern historical school of sceptics, point to this as a confirmation of their analysis. Unable to ignore this movement, they instead choose to enlarge its every negative feature. They triumphantly point out that in the end working class unity did not resolve the national question, but rather was breached by it.
There is a false method at work here. It is the same false method being displayed now by the vast majority of historians of the current Troubles. Because they are unable to see beyond the sectarian divisions they start out from the premise that the Troubles, in the sectarian form they have taken, were inevitable. The negative conclusions they then arrive at come as no surprise.
Proponents of the idea of ‘separate development’, North and South, take as their premise the inevitability of partition. From this they work back to find the ‘proof’ in preceding events. They minimize the potential of the revolutionary movement of 1918-20. To answer them we have to look at what actually happened.
On April 20th 1918 a special labour movement conference of 1,500 delegates lit the torch of this new workers’ movement. It decided on a one day general strike against conscription. April 23rd, the day of the strike, brought the greatest shut down there had ever been in Ireland. All over the country factories, transport, even pubs remained firmly closed.
Only in the northern area was there an exception – something which has been made much of by those who look for sectarian division in everything. This, they say, was a sign that even the working class movement, north and south, was following different paths.
In fact the evidence indicates that there was broad sympathy in the north, among Protestant and Catholic workers, for this strike. Anti-war sentiment by now was a European, not a southern Irish, factor and it was strong in the northern counties also. There was no strike only because the union leaders hesitated and did not call workers out in Belfast and other northern areas. Still, the 10,000 who demonstrated the day before at Belfast City Hall showed the anti-conscription mood that was present there as well.
The strike showed the power of the working class and gave it confidence in itself. There followed an unprecedented strike wave. Building workers, hotel and restaurant staff, carters, transport workers – the list of those who took action is endless. Even undertakers and domestic servants were out at some stage.
Moreover the movement spread across the country: Limerick bakers, flour millers in Kilrush, gas workers in Dungarvan ... the full extent of the strike wave begun in 1918 and carried on through 1919 is so great as to be impossible to record fully. Suffice to point out that during these two years there were three national and 18 local general strikes.
The real feeling in the north was shown by the unofficial action taken by Belfast engineering workers alongside those of Glasgow for shorter hours. This was probably the only major dispute of the period which did not directly involve the ITGWU, by now synonymous with trade unionism in much of Ireland.
The strike lasted from late January to late February. Although the strikers were mostly Protestant, there were Catholics employed in the industry and they came out. The strike committee likewise was mainly Protestant, but a number of Catholics were prominent within it.
Like the dockers and carters strike of 1907, this dispute polarised the city. The strike committee published its own newspaper and organised a workers’ police force. Their newspaper took up one of the old anti-Home Rule rallying cries of the Carsonites and presented it in a new form: “Labour in Belfast has discovered that, when it must fight it must fight alone. No helping hand is stretched out to help it on the way. Labour will fight, and Labour will be right. Labour can stand alone.” 
Far-reaching class conclusions were being drawn. Yet the proponents of ‘separate development’ play down their significance. Always searching on the underside of events for their cues they make much of the fact that offers of sympathetic action made by workers in the South were turned down.
Here is an example of how a single decision, torn from its context can be used to exaggerate sectarian differences. In fact there was a possibility of much wider action on the question of hours. A special conference of the ITUC&LP was held in Dublin on 8 February to consider the possibility of a national wages and hours movement. There were calls for the 44 hour demand of the Belfast workers to be taken up throughout the country.
Despite this the strike committee decided not to approach the ITUC&LP. No doubt one element of this decision was their hesitancy about the pro-Sinn Fein leanings they could detect within the leadership of this body.
But there were other probably more decisive factors. The Belfast workers received offers of support and of solidarity action from other workers in the city. Early in the dispute, linen workers in the Belfast mills made an approach offering to come out for shorter hours, but the strike committee turned them down also. There was an element of craft prejudice and also of male chauvinism in this decision. There were doubts among the strike leaders about whether the female linen workers would stick out a struggle. The Strike Bulletin argued that:
“custom has decreed that the amelioration of onerous conditions is generally secured by the craftsmen first though we do not think there is any inherent reason this should be so.” 
By the time of the ITUC&LP special conference, the dispute in Glasgow had entered a critical phase. The city had been occupied by troops, sent to break the strike, since the start of February. Rather than back down, the Glasgow workers issued a call to workers in the rest of Britain to come to their aid. A mass meeting of Electrical Trades Union members in London threatened to switch off the power in the capital from 6 February.
On the eve of this action the government issued a ban, using powers under the Defence of the Realm Act. The ETU leaders hesitated and postponed, in reality called off, their action. Also at this time the national leaders of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), to praises from the government, dealt the strikers a blow by suspending the Glasgow, London and Belfast district committees of the union. This was a turning point and a few days later the Glasgow workers voted to go back. In Belfast they carried on until the end of the month but with little prospect of any further concessions now that they were standing alone.
At this stage, to broaden the dispute meant an all-out confrontation with the state and a battle with their own union leadership. With the strike in Glasgow beginning to crumble, the Belfast workers opted not to spread the action. From the point of view of winning an outright victory this decision, and the refusal of the linen workers’ offer, were clearly mistakes. They were a victory of hesitancy over militancy – but it is not difficult to understand why they were taken.
Nothing is gained by prettifying or denying the negative features which may be present in any workers’ movement – nor is anything gained by exaggerating them. Within every battle against the employers there is another battle – socialist ideas versus more backward ideas from the past.
It is when it enters the arena of struggle that the working class finds itself as a class and learns to put old ideas, old prejudices to the side. The fact that hesitancy, possibly even a degree of prejudice influenced some decisions of the 1919 strike committee in no way obscures the huge impact this dispute made or the effect that it had in enormously raising the consciousness of the Belfast working class as a whole. This was to be seen in subsequent developments in the city which will be mentioned later.
The revival of the working class movement in 1918 was paralleled with an intensification of the national struggle. The old idea of the Redmondites of limited independence in a British context held no place in the more radical climate of the time. In the 1918 general election they were swept aside by Sinn Fein, with its call for outright independence to be achieved through struggle, not just by negotiation.
The newly elected Sinn Fein members refused to take their seats at Westminster. Instead, in 1919, they set up their own Irish parliament, or Dail, and issued a declaration of independence. This was backed with a military campaign launched by the newly formed IRA. The British government replied with a counter-campaign of reprisals and atrocities.
It wasn’t that the industrial movement was a backcloth to the national struggle – or visa versa. In truth the two were intricately but firmly woven together.
With the exception of the north-east that is. Here the class movement was developing in tandem with the industrial and socialist offensive on-going elsewhere in Ireland. But when it came to the national question, building and maintaining class unity was a more difficult thing.
Sinn Fein’s programme, all the radical rhetoric borrowed from the labour movement put aside, was at bottom for an independent capitalist Ireland. Its message to labour was that your separate demands must wait. Independence first, other social change only for discussion later. What this meant was shown in practice when the underground courts set up by Sinn Fein and backed physically by the IRA were used to end land seizures.
Just as capitalist Home Rule held no attraction for Protestant workers, neither did capitalist independence. Protestant workers could only have been won to a national struggle if this was part of a struggle for socialism and was fought, not under the banner of nationalism but that of internationalism.
Instead of striving to take the leadership of the national struggle, which they were well poised to do, the ITUC&LP leaders capitulated to Sinn Fein. In mid-1918 the ITUC&LP decided to contest the forthcoming general election and a programme was subsequently worked out in which Labour candidates would stand. However the ITUC&LP leadership made no concrete preparations to stand, held no special selection meetings, mounted no campaigns in local areas. Their lack of preparation and the compromises they had already made to Sinn Fein meant that the question was bound to provoke opposition. Sinn Fein were at this time adopting a policy of abstention from Westminster, a policy which the ITUC&LP endorsed for its own candidates arguing that attendance in the British parliament would be pointless due to the war.
The issue of abstention provoked dissension in trade union ranks. Earlier courtship of Sinn Fein by senior union figures made it difficult to argue that this was anything other than Labour pursuing Sinn Fein’s agenda. With the end of the war in sight it was clear that prominent ITUC leaders were in favour of dropping this policy. But in that case many of the most militant ranks of the movement would be likely to vote for Sinn Fein with its seemingly more bold policy of a complete abandonment of Westminster.
The threat of a division over the issue was used by the right wing of the movement, William O’Brien of the ITGWU included, to justify reversing the decision to stand. Al-though left wingers such as Cathal O’Shannon, also of the ITGWU, opposed, the right carried the day at a special conference in November.
The result was to give Sinn Fein a free run and to elevate them to the position of undisputed political leaders of the national struggle. More than this, the ITUC&LP leaders gave Sinn Fein candidates every material assistance, helped with propaganda and did what they could to bolster them in the eyes of the working class.
‘Labour must wait’ became the joint philosophy of Sinn Fein leader De Valera and of the dominant leaders of the ITUC&LP. This helped sustain those elements of difference which existed between the broad mass of Protestant workers in the north and the rest of the working class. In the hands of these leaders the national question was certain to be divisive.
At this point those who argue that partition was the inevitable result of these divisions, nothing to do with British imperialism or its henchmen in Ireland, lay down their pens. But there is far more to the question than this. People like De Valera and Labour leader William O’Brien pointed the movement one way. Within the movement itself there was an opposite tendency strengthened in every struggle, which pulled in a different direction. In the south the ranks of the labour movement and of Sinn Fein were beginning to go far beyond the programme of their leaders. They were embracing the idea, not just of a republic but of a workers’ republic or, as it was often put, of a ‘soviet republic’. The Protestant working class in the north were also unmistakably moving in the direction of socialism and of internationalism.
The role of leaders like O’Brien pointed to division, to the isolation of the advanced workers from the broad mass of the working class especially in the north. But with the broadening and deepening of the class struggle their ideas were being challenged. From below a socialist consciousness was being developed, socialist goals were being advanced. North and south, Protestant and Catholic, the working class were advancing, at an accelerating pace in the direction of unity around socialist ideas.
Across the country the movement was overtly socialist in its character. Not for nothing sections of the Belfast press dubbed the 1919 Belfast strike the ‘Belfast Soviet’. At this time the outstanding socialist and revolutionary, Peadar O’Donnell, was leading struggles in other parts of Ulster in his role as the organiser of the ITGWU. He brought together Protestant and Catholic mill workers in Caledon.
When, led by O’Donnell, Monaghan asylum workers occupied their workplace, the red flag was flown over the building. Elsewhere in the country a rural movement involving agricultural labourers and workers in agricultural processing plants began in earnest. Red flags and socialist slogans appeared everywhere – adorning platforms, carried on parades and held at rallies. The word ‘soviet’ seemed on everyone’s lips.
In Limerick in April 1919 ‘soviet’ became more than a word, it became a fact. When the British military authorities declared the city a special military area where everyone would have to carry special permits, the local trades council replied with a general strike.
From the first day of the strike the city came to a standstill. For two weeks Limerick had a workers’ government which regulated prices, distributed food, even printed its own money. It was the first ‘soviet’ to be established in Britain or Ireland.
The radicalised mood rubbed off on some leaders who were forced to give it partial expression in their speeches. One prominent figure, Cathal O’Shannon, speaking in Dublin’s Mansion House stated:
“The soviet idea was the only one that would confer freedom on Ireland.” 
He sent a message to the British Daily Herald urging the English working class to set up an “English Soviet Republic”. 
O’Shannon was a delegate from the ITUC&LP to the conference of the Second International in Berne where a decision was taken to support a call for a general strike on May Day 1919. The ITUC&LP leadership issued this call in Ireland and were met with a massive display of solidarity. Across the country the shut down was complete, in towns large and small there were demonstrations with red flags and the call for a socialist republic to the fore.
It is true that again much of Ulster including the Belfast area did not take part. In some areas the reason was simply that local union leaders did not call workers out. In Belfast the ITUC&LP’s courtship with Sinn Fein did mean that its authority was not automatically accepted in that city. Elsewhere the ITGWU provided the leadership of the strike. It was not a significant force in Belfast.
All this is but a detail. Two days later, on May 3rd, 100,000 workers marched from Donegall Place in the centre of Belfast across to the Ravenhill Road in the east of the city and then to the Ormeau Park for a massive public rally. All unions, including the ITGWU, took part, Catholic and Protestant marched side by side.
And like so many other marches in other parts of the country it was bedecked with socialist flags, banners and slogans. The rally in Ormeau Park was so large that three platforms had been erected so that speakers could address the crowd simultaneously.
The message from the platforms was of support for socialist ideas, acclaim for the Russian Revolution and for internationalism. Its main theme was the need for “undiluted, uncamouflaged representatives”  of labour to stand in elections to challenge the other parties.
Strikes continued through 1919 and into 1920. Dockers in Dublin and Limerick came out as did Dublin gas workers and transport workers in a number of areas. Forty four new branches of the ITGWU were formed during the second half of 1919. During the year as a whole there were no less than twelve local general strikes.
The rising influence of socialist ideas was vividly shown in April 1920 when the ITUC&LP called a general strike demanding the release of 100 prisoners held without charge in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail. The strike began on April 13th and lasted until the 15th, when the authorities caved in and the prisoners were released.
This was an immense demonstration of the power of the working class when called to action. It is true that the workers of the north east did not take part but, by this time, their lack of response was understandable.
It should be remembered that the proposal for partition was already well advanced. The Government of Ireland Act which put forward this proposal had been through its first and second readings in Westminster. On the national question the movement north and south had already been pulled in different directions.
Every all-out general strike although it maybe called on a single issue very quickly goes beyond that issue to wider questions. As a general strike develops, the outlines of an alternative state controlled by the working class become visible. The question of power, of which class runs society, is posed. So it was with the 1920 strike. Apart from the north-east, the strike was solid everywhere. From the first day, workers’ organisations, trades councils, ITGWU branches, took over the distribution of supplies, organised policing and other services in towns and cities alike.
Limerick, Cork, Galway became centres of workers’ power. So too did smaller towns, even villages. In Tralee the trades council took control, setting up its own ‘police’. ‘Red Guards’ patrolled Naas. A report from Muine Bheag to the ITGWU gives a flavour of the overall mood:
“On the second day of the strike we held a public meeting in the Market Square and publicly proclaimed the establishment of a provisional soviet government ...” 
Just as the engineering strike in the north saw unionist ideas put to the side to be replaced by socialist and internationalist ideas, so the 1920 strike showed the potential for the working class acting from below to go beyond the tail-ending by its leaders of Sinn Fein, and take the leadership of the national struggle. Although starting out from different points the working class throughout the country could have been united politically as well as industrially, under a socialist rather than any other flag.
Britain’s military commander, Neville MacCready, arriving in Dublin during this strike, clearly had in his mind this danger when he commented:
“Red murder stalked through the length and breadth of the land.” 
The tendency for the movement in all parts of the country to dovetail politically was apparent right into 1920. Although the national leadership of the ITUC&LP had embraced Sinn Fein from 1918, socialists in the north refused to endorse this course.
The Belfast Labour Party did put up candidates in the 1918 general election, standing in four seats. Although Sinn Fein candidates stood against them in every seat they managed to prevent this from driving Protestant workers behind the unionists. Their manifesto opposed the politics of ‘Celt against Saxon, Catholic against Protestant’. 
It demanded the ‘socialisation’ of wealth under democratic control. The results showed the potential. They won 22 per cent of the votes where they stood, polling 12,164, against 41,176 for the unionists and only 3,319 for Sinn Fein.
In January 1920, Labour fielded its forces in local elections. This time there was no repeat of 1918. A special conference of trades councils was called and it was agreed to put up candidates nationally.
341 out of the 650 Labour candidates who stood were successful. The scale of this success is well measured by a comparison with the 422 seats won by Sinn Fein.
35 Labour or union-backed candidates stood in Belfast, 22 of them in the name of Belfast Labour Party. Depending on their definition of Labour different historians quote different figures for the numbers elected but most now settle for 12.
When the labour movement was seen in alliance with Sinn Fein the national character of the movement was diminished. When it stood alone, as in these elections, the result was a single movement north and south behind the socialist policies which, in words at least, it put forward.
The 1920 elections saw the ranks of the working class movement still pressing forward in the direction of socialist ideas. The possibility still existed that socialist militancy would overwhelm the ‘Labour must wait’ philosophy of the heads of the labour movement.
8. Austen Morgan, Labour and Partition, The Belfast working class, 1905-23, Pluto Press 1991, p. 240.
9. Ibid., p. 240.
10. C.D. Greaves, The Irish Transport & General Workers Union, Gill & Macmillan 1982, p. 234.
11. Ibid., p. 234.
12. Morgan, op. cit., p. 249.
13. Greaves, op. cit., p. 267.
14. Ibid., p. 268.
15. Morgan, op. cit., p. 255.
Last updated: 4.1.2011