The Communist Tradition on Ireland: Part Two – Irish Labour confronts British imperialism

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.8 January/February 1981

dublin lockout 1913

The period from the end of the First International to the founding Conference of the Third (Communist) International was a decisive one for the working-class movement world-wide. In this period a fundamental change in the nature of the capitalist system took place. Capitalism entered its imperialist phase.

Imperialism and the working class

Capitalism in its relentless drive for profits has grown into a world-wide system of colonial oppression and financial domination of the overwhelming majority of the world by a small number of imperialist countries. This domination has divided the world into oppressor and oppressed nations. A handful of the imperialist countries obtain high monopoly profits out of the brutal exploitation of oppressed peoples world-wide. Out of these ‘super-profits’ imperialism is able to create and sustain a small privileged and influential layer of the working class in the imperialist countries whose conditions of life isolate it from the suffering, misery and temper of the broad mass of the working class. This privileged layer has a material interest in the continuation of imperialism, for it is the source of its economic and political privileges. These workers, a labour aristocracy, constitute the social base of opportunism in the working class. Politically this current represents the interests of the ruling class in the working-class movement. To protect its own minority interests this layer sacrifices the fundamental interests of the working class for an alliance with the ruling class – an alliance directed against the interests of the mass of the working class. Imperialism therefore not only divides the world into oppressor and oppressed nations, but also in the imperialist countries creates a split in the working-class movement between a small influential opportunist layer and the broad mass of the working class. The split was to have major implications in the international working-class movement.

These developments in the working-class movement occurred in the major imperialist countries at the turn of the century. However, in Britain they took place a lot earlier. In the nineteenth century the British bourgeoisie managed to split the British working-class movement.

In the middle of the nineteenth century British capitalism enjoyed almost a complete monopoly in the world market. Because of this monopoly the profits of British capital were very high. These ‘super-profits’ allowed a relatively privileged standard of life for an aristocracy of labour for a minority of skilled well-paid workers. These workers were organised in narrow, self-interested craft unions and they isolated themselves from the mass of the working class. They looked down on the unskilled worker. Politically this labour aristocracy supported the Liberals, who they looked to for the political and economic reforms thought necessary to guarantee their continued advancement and to secure their privileged existence. They were contemptuous of socialism, regarding it as ‘utopian’. It is indicative of the political influence of this layer that Lenin could remark, with justification even in 1913, that ‘nowhere in the world are there so many liberals among the advanced workers as in Britain’.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century things began to change. Britain’s monopoly power was being challenged by American, German and French capitalism. The economic basis of the narrow petit bourgeois trade-unionism and liberalism among the British workers was being undermined. The previously tolerable conditions of life gave way to extreme want as the cost of living rose and real wages fell. The class struggle intensified and this period saw the emergence and development of socialist organisations. The unskilled workers, encouraged and aided by the socialists, were organised in the wave of the New Unionism which swept Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1889 the Gas Workers Union and the Dockers Union were founded under the leadership of Will Thorne, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett. Over the next 25 years we were to see the inevitable conflict between the mass of the working class and the Liberal-Labour leadership which dominated the political and trade-union organisations of the labour movement.

Imperialism and colonial policy

As Britain’s economic superiority was being challenged, the opportunism of the leaders of the British labour movement necessarily took on the form of national chauvinism – a defence of the ‘nation’. To retain their privileged position they needed to maintain their alliance with the bourgeoisie. This opportunist leadership of the labour movement therefore supported, in one form or another, the colonial policy of their ‘nation’. Lenin pointed out the importance of this development in 1907, in an article on the Congress of the Second International held at Stuttgart that year.

‘The British bourgeoisie, . . . derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers. . . . (This) provides the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism. Of course, this may be only a temporary phenomenon, but the evil must nonetheless be clearly realised and its causes understood in order to be able to rally the proletariat of all countries for the struggle against such opportunism.’

At Stuttgart a major difference emerged in the Second International on the question of colonial policy. While all parties to the dispute, of course, rejected the present methods of capitalist colonial policy, a resolution was placed before the Congress which departed significantly from previous positions. It stated in its opening paragraph that

‘The Congress notes that the benefits and necessity of the colonies are grossly exaggerated, especially for the working class. However, the Congress does not, in principle and for all times, reject all colonial policy, which, under a socialist regime, may have a civilising effect.’

The dispute centred around this part of the resolution and the Congress almost split on the issue. 128 rejected this part of the resolution and with it the possibility of any so-called ‘socialist’ colonial policy. 107 voted for it and there were 10 abstentions. The English delegation split, 14 votes being given in favour of ‘socialist’ colonial policy including that of Ramsey MacDonald (Independent Labour Party), who spoke in favour, and 6 were against including the Social Democratic Federation – an indication of the division in the British movement yet to come. All the Russian delegation voted against, a pointer to the revolutionary stand to be made by the Russian movement in the future.

At this Congress what was later to be called the Social-Democratic (evolutionary-socialist) trend in the international movement – a trend which encompassed the Fabians, the British Labour Party and most of the ILP – emerged as a significant force. Bernstein, a member of the German Social Democratic Party, expressed their opportunist stand with its clear racist overtones when he said

‘There can be no question of defending the capitalist colonial policy. All of us are its opponents, the question is merely how we give expression to this opposition . . . ’

‘We must not assume a purely negative standpoint . . . on the question of colonial policy, but instead must pursue a positive socialist colonial policy. (Bravo!) We must get away from the utopian idea that aims at simply leaving the colonies. The final consequence of that view would be to return the United States to the Red Indians. (disturbance in meeting) The colonies are there. We must put up with this fact. A certain guardianship of cultured peoples over non-cultured peoples is a necessity, which should also be recognised by socialists.’ . . .

‘ . . . A great part of our economic system is based on the exploitation of resources from the colonies which the natives would not know what to do with. For this reason, we must adopt the majority resolution (on socialist colonial policy).’

While the Congress narrowly defeated Bernstein’s position there was a fundamental split in the international movement. This split was finally consolidated when the main parties of the Second International supported the First Imperialist War. The revolutionary trend in the working-class movement was to carry through its consistent opposition to all colonial policy and its support for the right of nations to self-determination, to an opposition to imperialist war. This trend eventually founded the Third (Communist) International in 1919.

It is in this context that the issue of Ireland again is to take on a decisive importance for the British working class. For the ability of the working class to break from its own opportunist leadership and so move in a revolutionary direction was to be measured by its support for the Irish revolution.

Ireland: Home Rule and the Land Question

After the defeat of the Fenian uprising in 1867, the opposition to British rule in Ireland mainly came through the Land League and Parnell’s leadership of the Irish (Home Rule) Party in the British House of Commons. The last years of the 1870s saw bad harvests in Ireland and famine soon threatened again. The peasantry organised in Michael Davitt’s Land League resisted evictions and seized land from the landlords – the land war had begun. They were supported by the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had secretly reorganised in 1873. Parnell became President of the Land League, so reinforcing his parliamentary campaign and ‘obstruction’ tactics in the House of Commons with the implied threat of a resort to violence if efforts to obtain Home Rule should fail. The Irish Party also held the balance of power between the Liberal and Conservative Parties, so the Irish question could not be pushed aside.

Gladstone’s response to this was typical of the British ruling class — coercion mixed with partial reform. Exactly the policy the British ruling class were to adopt in our own period in the early 1970s when faced with a resurgence of revolutionary nationalism in Ireland. It was designed to crush the revolutionary wing of the movement and bring closer to British policy the reformist wing.

In August 1881 a conciliatory Land Act was passed giving some fixity of tenure to the Irish peasantry and creating Land Courts for establishing fair rents but falling far short of the demands of the Land League. In October 1881 the Land League was proclaimed illegal, meetings were broken up by the police, habeas corpus was suspended and over 1,000 people were imprisoned including Davitt and Parnell.

In 1882 a deal was concluded between Gladstone and Parnell for a ‘peaceful’ settlement of the land question through improvements to the Act and a repeal of the Coercion Act then in force. The political prisoners were released. Soon after, the new Chief Secretary and the Under-Secretary for Ireland were assassinated in Phoenix Park, Dublin. The Crimes Act 1882 was passed which more or less introduced martial law again in Ireland – this was the fifty-seventh Special Act dealing with Irish resistance to British rule since the Act of Union in 1801. And so it went on.

In 1886 Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill was introduced into parliament offering the Irish limited self-government. It was defeated by an alliance of Liberal Unionists and the Conservative Party, backed by the promised use of violent resistance to Home Rule by the Orange Lodges of Belfast. The latter were given great encouragement by none-other than Lord Randolph Churchill of the Conservative Party. New elections saw the Conservative Party come to power.

The activities of the Land League continued and a perpetual Coercion Act – the Crimes At 1887 – was introduced. Five thousand people were charged under the Act in 3 years. Parnell died in 1891. A new Home Rule Bill was introduced by Gladstone in 1893 but was defeated by the veto of the House of Lords. Gladstone retired in 1894 and the issue of Home Rule in the British Parliament retreated into the background.

The Land Act 1903 offered a Government loan to tenant-farmers to buy their land and to repay the government over a period of, in the main, less than 70 years. As Lenin pointed out, the Liberals’ ‘system of land-purchase at a “fair” price’ means that the tenant-farmer will continue to pay for many years ‘millions and millions to the British landlords as a reward for their having robbed him for centuries and reduced him to a state of chronic starvation’. As a result of the Land Acts the land question ceased to be the dominant issue. It became one component among others in the struggle which was to build up over the next 15 years – that of a fight for an Irish Republic. In this period a new force – the Irish working class – was to take up the struggle.

Irish Labour faces British opportunism

The debates in the First International had already shown that many of the leaders of the English trade-unions were not prepared to criticise Gladstone and the Liberals for their policy on Ireland. (see article in FRFI 7) In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the trade-union and labour leaders drew even closer to the Liberals standing as Liberal candidates and supporting Liberal policy. Even in 1906, 25 out of 29 constituencies won by the newly formed Labour Party were won with the help of the Liberals.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the new Unions of unskilled workers. They had been founded and promoted by Socialists in conditions when faith in the capitalist system was being severely shaken. They began to challenge the domination over the labour movement of the Liberal-Labour leadership of the old aristocratic unions. The next 20 years would see this struggle take place. The Irish question decisively influenced its outcome.

At the Paris Congress of the Second International (1900) Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (founded in 1896) achieved separate representation for Ireland in the face of opposition from the British delegates. The latter argued that Ireland was not an independent country, but part of Great Britain. At the Congress the Irish delegation gave the British a further lesson in revolutionary socialism by being one of the two delegations totally opposed to socialists entering bourgeois governments. Connolly, unable to attend the Congress, fully supported the Irish delegation’s stand. The ISRP unfortunately had little influence at that time in Ireland but it began the struggle to unite the cause of Irish Labour with national independence.

The Irish TUC (1894) was formed at a time when British unions were still predominant in organising Irish workers and British parties like the Independent Labour Party and the Fabians had a few branches in Ireland, especially in Dublin and Belfast. However, from 1907 onwards the process of Irish workers joining the British amalgamated unions began to receive a succession of major jolts as ‘New Unionism’ raised its head in Ireland. James Larkin was at the centre of this process.

Larkin was born in Liverpool of Irish parents in 1876. He had to earn his living at the age of 11. By 16 he was a member of the Independent Labour Party and a socialist. During the Boer War he was arrested and fined several times for his street-corner denunciations of the War as a ‘jingo-imperialist venture’. In 1901 he joined the National Union of Dock Workers and soon after leading a strike in 1905 he was elected to be the Union’s general organiser. It was in that capacity that Larkin first went to Ireland in 1907 on an organisation drive for his Union.

Larkin very soon after arriving in Ireland set about organising the dock workers in Belfast (1907), Dublin (1908) and Cork (1909) in the Union. In Belfast in 1907 he led a bitter and violent strike when fifty English dockers imported through the Shipping Federation to Belfast were being used to smash the Union. During the strike troops fired on workers in the Catholic Falls Road area killing three and injuring many others. The employers and the authorities tried to sow divisions between the Catholic and Protestant workers, using the fact that Larkin was a Catholic, but due to Larkin’s efforts, they did not succeed. The strike eventually went to arbitration with the dockers, although organised, having to go back on not very satisfactory terms. Nevertheless in managing to unite Protestant and Catholic workers in organising the docks in Belfast, Larkin’s achievement, while not to be durable in the long run, was remarkable.

John Maclean, the Scottish revolutionary socialist, who on the invitation of Larkin had been in Belfast for a few days during the strike, on his return to Scotland, wrote articles defending the strikers and accusing the Liberal Government of murder. He was attacked by Philip Snowden, that vile reactionary Labour MP, who had defended the Government’s ‘employment of the military to quell disorder’. The Socialist, the paper of the Socialist Labour Party – a left-wing split from the Social Democratic Federation – also took up the defence the strikers, and in particular attacked the Labour MPs in parliament. ‘Beyond asking a couple of questions, they did nothing . . . From Shackleton to Will Thorne they have become accomplices of capitalist murder’ (Sept 1907). Just like the Labour MPs on Ireland today. Already the divide in the British labour movement on Ireland was becoming clear.

Larkin now concentrated his energies in organising the dockers in Dublin. In 1908 he was involved in another series of bitter strikes, with the employers again attempting to smash the Union. During this period Larkin increasingly clashed with Union Headquarters. On one occasion, the Union leadership in England settled a dispute over his head. Sexton, General Secretary of the Union, was bitterly opposed to Larkin’s activities and, particularly, the sympathetic strike. The dispute soon came to a head. In 1908 Larkin appealed for assistance. Sexton sent a postcard saying ‘Stew in your own juice’. When Larkin warned the Executive who were intent on holding his work back that ‘there was a movement on foot for organising the whole of unskilled labour in Ireland’, Sexton’s reply was to notify Larkin and all the Union branches of his suspension from the Union on 7 December 1908. Larkin’s reply was to form the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) decisively separating from the reactionary leadership of Sexton and Co.

The ITGWU, in its rule book, announced an end to the ‘policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trade Union Movement’. The Union was unique in many respects. It embodied a political programme which included nationalisation of all means of transport, the legal eight-hours-day, provision of work for all unemployed and ‘the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’. It declared its dedication to the organisation into one union of all workers – skilled and unskilled – in an industry. It argued for the use of boycotts and sympathetic strike action (a revolutionary position for trade-unions) to achieve its ends. In 1911 James Connolly, having returned from America, became the Belfast Secretary of the ITGWU. So an Irish union, having broken with the English trade-union traditions, born out of bitter struggles against the capitalist class in Ireland was now led by two revolutionary socialists – James Larkin an James Connolly.

The revolutionary potential of the British trade-union and labour movement was now to be gauged by its attitude and support for the ITGWU.

The Dublin Lock Out

By 1911, the ITGWU had established such as organisation amongst unskilled workers in Dublin that the employers had set up their own federation to combat it. In August 1913, William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company and the Irish Independent Group of Newspapers, took the initiative in the effort of the Dublin employers to smash the ITGWU. He told the workers in the dispatch department of his newspaper company that they must resign from the Union and sign an assurance they would not strike or they would be dismissed from the company. The Union put pickets on retailers selling Murphy’s paper the Irish Independent. The ITGWU members were locked out on 26 August. 700 workers from Murphy’s Tramways Company walked off their trams leaving them wherever they happened to be. Murphy called a meeting of the Dublin Employers Federation and on 3 September, 400 employers agreed to lock out all their workers. By 22 September, 25,000 workers had been locked out, involving, with their families, one third of the population of Dublin. If the same proportion of workers were locked out in London today, there would be about three quarters of a million locked out.

A meeting in support of the locked out men and the strikers was called for Sunday, 31 August in O’Connell Street. It was to be addressed by Larkin. Rumours suggested that the meeting would be banned. On the Thursday, 28 August, Larkin and other ITGWU officials were arrested for seditious libel and seditious conspiracy. They were released on bail on the understanding they would not break the law while awaiting trial. On the Friday the meeting was banned by proclamation. That evening Larkin burnt the ‘Proclamation of the King’ in front of a crowd of 10,000 people at Beresford Place. Announcing that ‘People make Kings and people can unmake them’ he said that ‘we will meet in O’Connell Street, and if the police and soldiers stop the meeting let them take the responsibility’. Another warrant was put out for Larkin’s arrest. Larkin, however, turned up in disguise on the balcony of a hotel (owned by Murphy) in O’Connell Street at the time of the meeting. After he started to speak to the crowd he was immediately arrested. Soon after, the police indiscriminately baton charged the crowd and the result was yet another Bloody Sunday in Ireland’s history. Two men were killed over the weekend of Bloody Sunday and hundreds were injured.

Connolly was also arrested with Larkin. Connolly refused to recognise the court and was sentenced to three months. He was released after a week’s hunger strike. Larkin was released on bail on 12 September and decided to leave for England and Scotland to appeal for support.

The support of the British trade-union movement for the strike was to be critical. At its 1 September Congress the British TUC could not avoid discussing the Dublin events. In the debate James Sexton called for support, ‘however black James Larkin might be, or James Connolly too’. Very useful! The Congress did not vote support for the strike. It simply condemned the conduct of the Dublin police and decided to send a delegation to investigate the situation there. A motion demanding the release of Larkin and Connolly and calling for finance for the strikers was not put to the vote. ‘Revolutionary speeches’ were made by Ben Tillett and Robert Smillie, but this couldn’t help the strikers.

While the TUC delegation was in Dublin it spent a great part of its time trying to patch up a dirty compromise with the employers. But the employers refused to comply, no doubt confident in the knowledge that if the TUC hadn’t acted at the beginning of the strike they had little to fear. In contrast, the strength of the Dublin workers was demonstrated on 3 September when 50,000 workers marched behind the coffin of James Nolan, one of the workers murdered by the police. The funeral procession was guarded by ITGWU squads bearing makeshift arms – an embryo of the Irish Citizen Army formed the following month as an armed workers defence force against the attacks of police and scab workers. The Dublin police kept out of sight.

Soon the number of workers on strike or locked out grew. The British TUC began to send money and foodstuffs to Dublin. The Miners Federation voted to give £1,000 a week and various Labour newspapers opened subscription lists. But the bulk of this aid did not come until late September. Although the money and food ships were vital to workers whom the employers were trying to starve back to work, they could not take the place of solidarity action.

While the British TUC was as afraid of the ITGWU as the Dublin employers, the rank-and-file responded quickly to the example of the Dublin workers. The Liverpool railwaymen went out on strike on 9 September and began real solidarity action, which the Executive of the National Union of Railwaymen and the British TUC did their best to destroy. 3,000 in Liverpool came out one day, followed by 4,000 in Birmingham the next day. Transport strikes took place in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. NUR officials led by J H Thomas were trying everything they could to get the workers back. (Eventually, they did succeed.) The strike spread to other parts of the country. The rank-and-file wanted a national strike. The British TUC responded by announcing a fund and the first of the food ships for the strikers. The revolutionary socialist Sylvia Pankhurst’s comments were well placed when she said:

‘In the long-drawn misery of the Dublin lock-out its victims pleaded vainly for sympathetic action by British transport workers, and received instead a “food ship” from the Trade Union Congress – a mere handful of crumbs in the vast desert of their need.’

On 27 October, Larkin’s trial was held and he was sentenced to seven months in jail. On the following Sunday a gigantic meeting took place in the Albert Hall in London to protest against Larkin’s sentence. Sylvia Pankhurst defied arrest to speak at this meeting in support of Larkin. Connolly called on everyone to work and vote against the Liberal Government until Larkin was free. Public opinion and the by-election results soon had the desired effect as the Liberals lost votes. Larkin was freed after only 17 days in jail.

Larkin then launched his ‘fiery cross’ campaign of public meetings in England, Scotland and Wales. 5,000 heard him speak in the Manchester Free Trade Hall with 20,000 waiting outside. The workers called for national strike action. A few days later, mid-November, the British TUC decided to call a special Congress on the Dublin lock-out for 9 December in order to head off the pressure of the rank-and-file workers for national strike action. Larkin addressed a massive meeting in the Albert Hall the next evening – 10,000 inside and 15,000 waiting outside. George Lansbury, Editor of the Daily Herald, and other socialists denounced the Labour Party and the reactionary trade union officials for their inaction.

A few days later Larkin decided to go over the heads of the trade-union leaders and appeal to the rank-and-file. He told them through a manifesto printed in the Daily Herald to tell their leaders ‘for the future they must stand for Trade Unionism’ and ‘that they are not there as apologists for the shortcomings of the capitalist system’. Larkin had issued a revolutionary appeal to the British workers to split from their treacherous leaders and unite with the Dublin workers. Attacks on Larkin now began. J H Wilson, head of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, issued a manifesto denouncing Larkin and the methods of the Transport Union in Dublin. Larkin was soon to reply. He told a massive meeting in London in referring to J H Wilson and Philip Snowden that ‘I am not going to allow these serpents to raise their foul heads and spit out their poison any longer’. He denounced the union leaders and the Labour Party for failing to support the strike. J H Thomas was particularly singled out for forcing rank-and-file railwaymen back to work.

The 9 December British TUC Congress took place. Connolly presented the Irish case for holding out. Then to everyone’s amazement, Ben Tillett moved a resolution condemning Larkin’s unfair attacks on British trade union officials. He was then considered one of the most militant trade unionists in Britain and had only a few weeks earlier stood on platforms with Larkin calling for armed worker squads. He went on to ask the Congress to affirm its confidence in the ability of these officials to negotiate an honourable settlement. Armed squads were one thing. Attacking the leadership of the Trade Union movement quite another. Larkin confronted Tillett with a choice: stand with the masses, with Larkin and against his fellow trade union leaders, or desert the workers and go over to the other side. Tillett went over. When the First Imperialist war broke out 9 months later Tillett became a recruiting sergeant for imperialism.

Speaker after speaker got up and condemned Larkin. He was finally called on to reply. He began, ‘Mr Chairman and human beings’, and amidst continual uproar he denounced those leaders who had betrayed the strike. He told them the Dublin workers would struggle on to the end. The Congress offered nothing. After all it had only been called to stave off the pressure of the rank-and-file.

The strike was eventually lost. Without British TUC support it could not be won. It revealed, as events in Britain were later to show and Ben Tillett’s sell-out conclusively proved, that the revolutionary trends in the British working class were not strong enough to defeat the opportunist leadership of the British labour movement. Opportunism had triumphed.

The opportunist leaders of the British labour movement and the employers of Dublin certainly were in agreement on one vital thing. As William Martin Murphy so clearly said about his stand:

‘It is not a question of an attack on trade unionism at all. I have been in business for nearly fifty years, and I have never before known anything like Larkinism. It is not trade unionism in the ordinary sense at all.’

The Secretary of the Engineering Employers’ Federation made the same point.

‘A victory for the syndicalist leaders there would be disastrous for the employers not only in Dublin, but throughout the United Kingdom.’

The revolutionary unionism of the Dublin working class had shown the way. Larkin instinctively followed what Lenin was later to call ‘the essence of Marxist tactics’. He went deeper and lower into the masses. The ITGWU represented the organisation of the unskilled Irish workers and exposed to the world their revolutionary strength and courage. The democracy of the ITGWU was firmly based on the masses, its organising principle proletarian solidarity. It created the first armed workers’ militia – the Irish Citizen Army. It later opposed the imperialist war. It spurned ‘respectability’, ‘compromise’ and ‘moderation’. The ITGWU had only one measure for its actions: the needs of the working masses. Little wonder that British imperialism, the Dublin employers and the British trade union leaders hated it.

In the years just before the lock-out the British working class had demonstrated its ability to fight in a series of bitter strikes – the transport strikes of 1911 and 1912, and the miners’ strikes of 1912. But in 1913 it could not rise to the challenge of Dublin’s revolutionary lead. The British working class had proved unable to prevent its leaders selling out the revolutionary Irish. As a result those same leaders were able to draw the British working class into support for the imperialist war and so lead it to political defeat. The same leaders were to betray the struggles of the British working class right up to the defeat of the General Strike.

The defeat of the Dublin workers had established one essential point. The Irish working class could only free itself as part of a revolutionary national struggle to separate Ireland from Britain. Behind the Dublin capitalists lay British imperialism and its agents in the British working class.

The lock-out had, however, also exposed the fundamentally reactionary character of the Irish (Home-Rule) Party. During the lock-out the Redmondite Nationalist Newspaper Freeman’s Journal had sided with the employers, most of whom anyway were members and supporters of the Home-Rule Party. William Martin Murphy was in fact a millionaire former Nationalist MP.

The bourgeois character of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin was also exposed. Griffith had always attacked Larkin as an ‘English trade unionist’. He defended the Dublin employers.

‘Not the capitalist but the policy of Larkin had raised the price of food until the poorest in Dublin are in a state of semi-famine.’

During the lock-out the attitude of the British TUC in substituting food ships for solidarity action played straight into Griffith’s hand. He rightly regarded the food ships as an insult and was able to tell his supporters ‘whether the English call themselves Liberals or Tories, Imperialists or Socialists – they are always the English’.

The revolutionary wing of the Republican movement, however, stood by the workers. During the lock-out Irish Freedom said, in attacking the employers,

‘The cause of Irish liberty is more the cause of the people than the plutocrats and the new Ireland we work for will not be governed by money-bags.’

In the lock-out the alliance of the working class and the revolutionary wing of Republicanism came into existence. The strike was lost, but the ITGWU and the loyalty of the workers to trade unionism still remained. Further, the Irish workers possessed the Irish Citizen Army which in March 1914 proclaimed

‘that the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.’

And that one of the principle objects of the Irish Citizen Army was ‘to arm and train all Irishmen capable of bearing arms to enforce and defend its first principle.’ The Irish Citizen Army was to join with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the next stage of the struggle – that for an Irish Republic. This alliance led by Connolly and Pearse was to carry out the Easter Rising.

To be continued

David Reed
January 1981

[Material from this article later went on to become part of Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed]

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed