Labour Waits

Padraig Yeates

Irish Socialist Republicanism 1909-36, by Adrian Grant, Four Courts Press, 228 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1846823619

This is one book that can be judged by its cover. Adrian Grant makes a strong case for the compatibility of socialism and republicanism. But then, socialism and nationalism have often been highly compatible and republicanism, for all its distinctive characteristics, remains a sub-set of Irish nationalism. Grant’s insistence that splits between left-republicans, radical socialists and communists in the late 1920s and 1930s were based on “practicalities” not theoretical differences is well argued, but if the problem was one of semantics why was it so difficult to find a basis for political action? He himself admits that the project was partly thrown off course by the Third International’s class against class strategy and by the Soviet Union’s anti-clerical drive in the critical period from 1929.

But flaws in the analysis go right back to the assertion that Larkin’s arrival in Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union heralded the advent of a united Labour movement with a socialist republic as its goal and a capacity to win leadership of the radical nationalist movement. As Grant acknowledges, the impetus for the Irish Trade Union Congress to form a Labour Party in 1912 was to ensure representation in the long anticipated Home Rule parliament, not to campaign for an Irish Republic.

Likewise there is considerable retrospection applied to his accounts of the 1913 Lockout, which is characterised as a precursor to the struggle for independence. Grant repeats the hoary myth that the strike failed in large part because the TUC refused to undertake sympathetic strike action in Britain. The reality is that the lockout would never have assumed epic proportions if Ireland had not been part of the United Kingdom. It was blatant police brutality on Bloody Sunday, the eve of the TUC conference in Manchester that transformed Dublin into the cockpit of a class struggle that echoed the British strike waves of the previous three years. To some extent the TUC and the British Shipping Federation were continuing their war through Irish proxies.

There is no denying that specific conditions in Dublin contributed to the particular ferocity of the dispute, or that it played a vital role in radicalising nationalists such as Padraig Pearse and Eamonn Ceannt. In fact every signatory of the 1916 Proclamation gave public support to the strikers. How far it radicalised Irish opinion outside Dublin is debateable. If anything, the reaction from local democratically elected bodies such as urban district councils and boards of guardians indicates that the gap between Dublin’s unique brand of militant syndicalism and nationalist Ireland widened. The axis of class unity was between Dublin and Merseyside, not Dublin and Belfast or Cork.

Even within Dublin the labour movement was divided, with some conservative, established unions such as the Bookbinders and Drapers’ Assistants allowing their antipathy towards Larkin and his ideology to overrule traditional bonds of solidarity. The “blame the Brits” argument vociferously promoted by Larkin and Connolly from December 1913 onwards to cover their own strategic mistakes reflected poorly on them. It damaged trade union unity and prepared the ground for radical nationalism to make gains in Dublin after war broke out in 1914.

Once war came the separatist project became a realistic possibility for the first time since the French Revolution and Dublin became the cockpit of the Irish revolution. Unfortunately the divisions inherited from the lockout left the ITGWU and “Larkinism” severely weakened in the capital. Those divisions did not disappear with the advent of war. Indeed, by September 1915, when a by-election occurred in the Harbour Division, the most working class constituency in the country, to fill the vacancy created by the death of the sitting Irish Party MP, William Abraham, it proved impossible to agree a Labour candidate. Local councillor PT Daly was the obvious choice, but he was by then a deadly enemy of James Connolly, who had succeeded Larkin as acting general secretary of the ITGWU. Connolly, already committed to the insurrectionary path, refused the nomination, as did others. It was left to three nationalists to fight it out and the victor was a young publican called Alfie Byrne.

Connolly’s Fenian instincts were no doubt reinforced by years of barren electioneering as well as defeat on the industrial battlefield in 1913. As with the lockout, military defeat in 1916 reinforced radical nationalism rather than Labour; nor did Connolly’s execution in 1916 end the civil war within Dublin labour. If anything it worsened, with rival camps coagulating around Daly and Connolly’s friend and self-appointed political heir William O’Brien. Most craft workers in Dublin aligned with the IRB, Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. They regarded Labour as the party of the unskilled and low paid. O’Brien recognised the significance of this radical nationalist strand within the trade union movement and sought to realign Labour with it by forging an alliance with post-1916 Sinn Fein. The Labour Party was acutely aware by late 1918 that Sinn Féin had stolen its base. When it finally decided to contest the snap “khaki election” called by Lloyd George, the party could not find a single candidate willing to run outside of Dublin. Even in the city there was a marked reluctance to do so. Tom McPartlin, a leading figure in the 1913 Lockout, was eventually persuaded to accept a nomination, only to have his union, the Tailors’ Society, threaten to disown him.

Labour accepted the reality that, if it had run in Dublin, all it would have done was split the radical vote. This would probably have allowed the Unionists to win five seats in the city instead of three. (They won Rathmines and the two Trinity seats).

Outside of Dublin the Labour Party remained what it had started out as in 1912, a political expression of the trade union movement that mirrored the composition of local trades councils. Local leaders like James Everett in Wicklow and Richard Corish in Wexford were hard to distinguish from radical Sinn Féin and Irish Volunteer activists because they were themselves active in the War of Independence. In some cases, such as Harry Broderick in Athlone, chairman of the regional division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, they were well to the right of Sinn Féin.

The average vote for Labour nationally in the local elections of 1920 was 18 per cent; it was somewhat better in Belfast, with 19 per cent, despite the handicap of sectarian divisions. In Dublin, where the Labour movement was superficially united in its explicit commitment to revolutionary socialist ideas, it secured only 12 per cent of the first preference vote and owed its 17.5 per cent of the seats to Sinn Féin transfers. By now the split in Dublin Labour had become public, with the Dalyites running under the banner of Trades Council Labour and the O’Brienites as Republican Labour. The O’Brienites, whose policies were almost identical to those of Sinn Féin, formed a ruling coalition with that party in the city, while the Dalyites often aligned themselves with the Municipal Reform Association, a broad alliance of former unionists and nationalists devoted to protecting the interests of the ratepayer and the municipal finances in troubled times.

The Dalyites did support the Sinn Féin-Republican Labour majority on a number of key issues, including the declaration of the Corporation’s allegiance to Dáil Éireann. But, when bread and butter interests were affected by militant nationalist policies, such as the Corporation’s refusal to meet the terms of British subsidies to maintain municipal jobs and services, pragmatism came first.

Could the Sinn Féin-Republican Labour alliance in Dublin be considered a manifestation of socialist republicanism? Yes. In fact it was probably the most practical and successful example of socialist republicanism in our history, but it was doomed to failure. Many of the municipal administration’s activities on behalf of Dáil Éireann, such as the Belfast Boycott, were counterproductive, while even successful campaigns such as the munitions strike eventually had to be abandoned because, as Grant acknowledges, they were inflicting more damage on the civilian population than on the British administration.

Socialist republicanism can certainly be regarded as a progressive manifestation of Irish nationalism in this period but was it ever a practical proposition? In 1922 Karl Kautsky wrote: “The deciding battles for Ireland’s independence in recent years were won mainly by the energy and devotion of her proletariat. In spite of this, that proletariat is threatened by the independent state which it won, not with an improvement, but with a further decline of its position.”

It raises the question would that proletariat have been better off fighting for socialism within the United Kingdom rather than pursuing the chimera of a Workers and Small Farmers’ Republic? Grant does not address this issue, but his book is an important contribution to the debate for all that.

Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 and A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921.