Connolly and the Irish labour movement

Submitted by Matthew on 10 August, 2016 - 12:50 Author: Michael Johnson

Part ten of Michael Johnson’s series on the life and politics of James Connolly. The rest of the series can be found here.


The issue of the need for an independent Irish labour movement and an Irish Labour Party was a source of conflict with members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Belfast, whose leading light was William Walker. Walker, a long-time Belfast labour activist and former member of the British Labour Party’s executive, advocated the further integration of labour bodies in Ireland with the British labour movement, a view he understood to represent “internationalism”.

Connolly took issue this this in his “Plea For Socialist Unity in Ireland” in the pages of Forward in May 1911. With Home Rule in mind, Connolly wrote that the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) “believes that these questions which divide Socialists are not serious enough to warrant separate organisations in the one country, but can well be debated within one organisation” before asking: “What, then, keeps the two organisations divided?”

Connolly continued: “Laying aside all questions of personality, personal ambitions, and personal jealousies as being accidental and inessential, it may be truthfully asserted that the one point of divergence is that the ILP in Belfast believes that the Socialist movement in Ireland must per force remain a dues-paying, organic part of the British Socialist movement, or else forfeit its title to be considered a part of International Socialism, whereas the Socialist Party of Ireland maintains that the relations between Socialism in Ireland and in Great Britain should be based upon comradeship and mutual assistance, and not upon dues paying, should be fraternal and not organic, and should operate by exchange of literature and speakers rather than by attempts to treat as one two peoples of whom one has for 700 years nurtured an unending martyrdom rather than admit the unity or surrender its national identity.

“The Socialist Party of Ireland considers itself the only International Party in Ireland, since its conception of Internationalism is that of a free federation of free peoples, whereas that of the Belfast branches of the ILP seems scarcely distinguishable from Imperialism, the merging of subjugated peoples in the political system of their conquerors… We cannot conceive why our Comrades should insist that we are not Internationalists, and that we cannot be, unless we treat the Socialists of Great Britain better than we treat the Socialists of the Continent, or of America, or Australia.”

The SPI, though, correct to insist on Irish national self-determination and a fraternal relationship with the British movement, had no adequate democratic programme addressing the issue of minority rights with which to re-assure Protestants of their place in a Home Rule Ireland. Protestant fears were by no means irrational. Connolly himself had already pointed out back in 1908 in The Harp that the Catholic Church's defeat of Parnell had “established the priesthood in full control of secular affairs in Ireland”.

On Easter Sunday of that year, the Ne Temere decree came into force meaning that the Catholic Church would not recognise a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic unless it took place in a Catholic church, and decreeing that children from a “mixed marriage” must be brought up as Catholics. One high-profile case in 1910 involving a Catholic father taking two children away from their Presbyterian mother became a mainstay of anti-Home Rule propaganda.

Connolly was able to triumph over Walker, however, and in Easter 1912 an Independent Labour Party of Ireland (ILPI) was formed at a conference in Dublin, with four of the five Belfast branches of the ILP, as well as the Belfast branch of the British Socialist Party (BSP), in attendance. The aim of the ILPI was to achieve “an Industrial Commonwealth based on the common ownership of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange, with complete political and social equality between the sexes.” Its programme for achieving this was a blend of a syndicalist emphasis on “conquest of industrial power, the necessary preliminary to industrial freedom” with a political organisation “for the mastery of all the public powers of the State”.

The basis of membership was broad, open to “all men and women, irrespective of their past political affiliations, who desire to see the working class of their country organised upon the political field.” The ILPI programme, however, did not mention the national question, leading to reasonable speculation from Greaves that it was intended as a programme applicable largely after the introduction of Home Rule.

With the formation of the ILPI as a new broad socialist propaganda organisation, the SPI dissolved itself on 10 June 1912. The ILPI continued agitation for the formation of an Irish Labour Party based on the trade unions. At the Irish TUC Congress in Clonmel in 1912, these proposals were taken up and a resolution to found the Irish Labour Party was passed by 49 votes to 19. In light of events in Ulster, however, Connolly’s view that the correct form of industrial organisation would produce an adequate instrument of working-class representation on the political field could not have but been shaken by the Orange working-class reaction to Home Rule. Class unity on the economic front could not answer the complex political questions posed by Protestant workers’ opposition to Irish self-government. This required the sort of clear political perspective and capacity to intervene in the ideological struggle that the loose SPI and, after, the ILPI, could not provide.

Part of the explanation, too, was Connolly’s circumstances. Living on the Falls Road in nationalist west Belfast, Connolly was more familiar with Catholic dockers than the skilled Protestant workers. A reflection from his SPI comrade William McMullen reveals Connolly’s attitude at the time: “He, no doubt, found the Northern environment trying and uncongenial and it was only with difficulty he could be patient with the odd stolid Orangeman whom he encountered in his propaganda work up to this. One such occasion was when he was speaking at Library Street on a Sunday evening and was expatiating on Irish history when one of this type interrupted him, and drawing a copy of the Solemn League and Covenant from his pocket brandished it in the air and remarked there would be no Home Rule for Ireland and that he and his thousands of co-signatories would see to it. Connolly, with a sardonic smile, advised him to take the document home and frame it, adding ‘your children will laugh at it’.”

As the marching season approached in the summer of 1912, fighting broke out between sectarian Hibernians and Protestant schoolchildren on a day out in Castledawson. In response, loyalists began to expel thousands of workers from the shipyards, including a minority of Protestant socialists and supporters of Home Rule. The climax of Unionist resistance was reached when on 28 September 1912, Carson led the signing of a Solemn League and Covenant pledging defiance to Home Rule. 237,368 men signed up, with a similar number of women signing a separate declaration.

In January 1913, the Bill passed its third reading and was thrown out by the House of Lords. That same month, the UUC announced the formation of an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which by November had nearly 80,000 men, and was regularly drilling on the estates of sympathetic landowners. By 1914, the Irish Parliamentary leaders, under pressure from Asquith, had accepted the principle that counties in Ulster could vote to exclude themselves temporarily from Home Rule. In reality, any exclusion of majority Protestant areas was likely to be permanent. Connolly wrote famously that: “Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.”

While a far-sighted and accurate prediction about the effects of partition, Connolly’s prescription that “Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary” was unsustainable given the overwhelming dominance of Unionism in the Ulster labour movement. Indeed, Connolly must have recognised this. Denis McCullough, who was President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) during the Easter Rising, recalls in his application for a military pension in 1937 that Rising leaders “were insistent, especially James Connolly, that ‘we were to fire no shot in Ulster’.” Connolly, who had written in 1900 that “Ireland without her people is nothing to me” was now forced to fall back on a geophysical definition of nationhood, writing in 1916 that “the frontiers of Ireland, the ineffaceable marks of the separate existence of Ireland, are as old as Europe itself, the handiwork of the Almighty, not of politicians. And as the marks of Ireland’s separate nationality were not made by politicians so they cannot be unmade by them.”

But Priscilla Metscher is surely correct that “even had Connolly been able to fathom the full complexities of Orangeism, it is questionable whether he could have achieved more than he did in the Belfast of his times.” And although Connolly was slow to recognise the deep roots of Protestant working-class, to his immense credit as a socialist he refused to write off Protestant workers or postpone winning them to the socialist cause until independence was achieved. When the workplace expulsions had begun, Connolly refused to have anything to do with vigilance committees established by the Home Rule MP Joe Devlin and the Catholic clergy, arguing that they must be fought on a class basis.

On 2 August, the Independent Labour Party held a meeting against the expulsions and called for a labour movement demonstration. A march was organised by the ITWGWU featuring the Non-Sectarian Labour Band from the 1911 dock strike. However, as Greaves noted “Connolly had no means of resistance but propaganda” and the wave of bigotry proved too strong for the small forces of the socialists to counteract. Connolly wrote regretfully that the fight “is a fight not only against the bosses but against the political and religious bigotry which destroys all feeling of loyalty to a trade union…the feeling of the city is so violently Orange and anti-Home Rule at present that our task has been a hard one all along.”

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