Matt Merrigan was a member of the small Irish Trotskyist group in the 1940s, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and a socialist all his life. He eventually became president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and died in 2000.
In the mid-50s, for a while, he wrote reports on Ireland for Labor Action, the paper of the Independent Socialist League of Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others in the USA.
Matt Merrigan’s first article on Ireland for Labor Action was on 19 September 1955. There had been nothing in 1954 Labor Action. His reappearance coincided with an obvious quickening of links, or a re-forging of links, or establishment of close links, between the ISL and Socialist Review (the group in Britain at the time led by Tony Cliff). I think Max Shachtman, or somebody, visited.
There were five items in 1955, six in 1956 and one in 1957. The last appearance was dated 29 April 1957.
Before Merrigan, you have to go back to 9 April 1951 for any comment at all in Labor Action on Ireland, a commemorative piece reprinted from the British ILP paper, Socialist Leader, by Dick Beach, one of James Connolly’s sons-in-law.
1. Labor Action 19 September 1955
Behind the IRA’s commando raids.
Festering sore: the partition of Ireland
The Irish and English papers in the last few weeks have featured the Irish Republican Army’s raids on British military installations as precursors of an all-out campaign to focus world attention on the continued partition of Ireland by Britain.
The raid on Arborfield Barracks in Berkshire, England, by IRA commandos; and the removal of thousands of rounds of ammunition and a quantity of machine guns threw the British security forces into a state of nerves. Military and police activity recalled the 1939-41 bomb campaign by the IRA in English cities which culminated in hangings and prison sentences for IRA activists.
Petty bourgeois and fringed with fascists, the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein (its political mouthpiece) is a conspiratorial cloak and dagger sect. Its basic approach to national unity is emotional and hysterical. It proclaims that its mission is preordained and holy by virtue of its opposition to British Imperialism. But it lacks an elementary understanding of the international role of imperialism in general, and is wholly out of touch with the social and national struggles of other colonial peoples.
The commando-like raids in Britain were preceded by attacks across the border into Northern Ireland. But the problem at being confronted by armed fellow-Irishmen of the British army garrison in Northern Ireland was a propaganda difficulty unlikely to be encountered by attacks in Britain proper. Also in Britain the Irish, northern and southern, enjoy the same rights as British subjects and among the millions of emigrant Irish in Britain the IRA finds a fruitful field for sympathisers and recruits in the very heart of enemy territory.
Repressive police measures against even moderate nationalists domiciled in Northern Ireland makes the extra-legal activity at the IRA doubly difficult in what is termed the occupied sectors of the country. Hence the actions in Britain.
Socialist influence in the ranks of the IRA and Sinn Fein is non-existent. Connolly’s association with the independence movement 40 years ago is hailed by them today as a vindication of their “progressiveness”. Connolly’s Marxist approach to the national question is misrepresented as having been super-patriotic and chauvinist.
The political labour movement as represented by the Labour Party in Ireland has no principled position on the anti-partition struggle. Therefore its attitude toward the IRA and its physical-force policy is utterly opportunist. It seeks for purely parliamentary reasons to identify itself (but not too closely) with the anti-British chauvinism that the IRA evokes. But one waits vainly for a statement on the matter from the government of the Republic in which the Labour Party holds four ministries, including Justice, which would be charged with combating the “illegal” IRA in the Republic.
It is reported that a “pact” between the government and the IRA has been concluded in which the “blind eye” is turned to the IRA’s extraterritorial activities in return for “hands off” the authority and institutions of the Republic (which the IRA characterises as a creature of British imperialism) in whose parliament they refuse to sit. (One should bear in mind, of course, the fact that they have not won even one seat in the House of Representatives [An Dail].)
The Trade Union Congress as distinct from the nominal claim of the Labour Party is a genuine all-Ireland body, being the trade union centre for both States. It is not recognised by the Northern Ireland authorities by virtue of this supra-border complexion. It nevertheless retain its homogeneity in an industrial sense by avoiding the national question or the constitutional position of the two States.
To retain this unity means being completely pragmatic; and in deference to the unions with members in Northern Ireland, the Congress affords a measure of autonomy via a Northern Ireland Committee of the TUC which concerns itself with problems peculiar to its State.
Labour unity is sorely hampered by the national question. A small centre for purely Irish unions exists in the Republic alongside the TUC. It represents a breakaway from the TUC some ten years ago over a charge of the domination of the Irish TUC by English unions (unions which were English by origin and extended their activities to Ireland) which were claimed to have a quasi-imperialist orientation. There is a germ of substance in this claim, for without a doubt these amalgamated unions recruited Irish labour for the war effort, and were assisted by the Stalinists to this end.
However the basic leadership of this nationalist centre is incorrigibly sectarian nationalist, and basically petty bourgeois in politics, though a few of its leaders still sentimentally, and for mostly corrupt reasons continue their membership in the Labour Party.
Northern Ireland capitalists, represented by shipbuilding and linens, believe that union with Britain serves their interests better than membership in an Irish Republic. Perhaps when Britain led the world’s manufacturing race and the Empire banked in economic sunshine while the colonial peoples perished in the shade there was some substance to this attitude. But today with Britain losing her edge in textiles and shipbuilding the economic backwater of Northern Ireland is fast becoming a stagnant pool. Yet the Tory Unionist Party is as intransigent on the question of union as it was 30 years ago when it came to power.
Nevertheless, it still can, by manipulating anti-Catholic and anti-Republican prejudices, command a mass following even in periods of mass unemployment. The militant politico-religious protestant Orange Order provides a fanatical loyalist counterweight to the threats of Republican fanaticism. Added to this a very efficient gerrymandering of electoral areas which precludes the emergence of either a Nationalist or Labour opposition in the Northern Ireland parliament.
The Machiavellian role of the Catholic Church in the politics of the Republic and the threats of violence by the IRA extremists lend substance to the claims of the Tory Unionists that Northern Ireland citizens in an all-Ireland Republic would be second-class, and thereby consolidate the Unionists at every turn. The threats of the IRA justify the Northern regime in ruling by emergency powers and retaining an armed semi-military police force, which intimidates even the most moderate political critics of the regime.
Westminster exercises absolute control over fiscal defence and social policies in Northern Ireland with the exception of the policing of the area which is prerogative of the Northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs, who in his own immediate political interests can be relied upon to do a good job.
The Republic, which extends over four-fifths of the island, is ruled at the moment by a coalition composed of extreme right, centre and the left-centre Labour Party, with de Valera’s populist party in opposition. The Republic has its own institutions, and accredited representatives abroad.
The economy of the Republic is basically agricultural with a light manufacturing industry dependent on the importation of raw materials from abroad, and a processing industry ancillary to some agricultural products like sugar beet growing and the manufacture of sugar, barley for brewing end distilling, etc. A miserable under-capitalisation, primarily in agriculture, with the volume of production remaining fairly stagnant, begets an impoverished and under-employed rural proletariat who leave the country of the rate of 10,000 to 20,000 per year for Britain (where jobs are chasing men) and for other countries, mostly Canada end the United States.
Some secondary causes drive young people for the most part into emigration: (1) The restrictive and coercive role of parents toward youthful exuberance, and the desire to wed without necessarily having the accommodations or the means to live on the basis of the peasant proprietorship of the parents. (2) The all-pervading clerical influence that isolates and exercises social and domestic pressures on young people who betray any sign of non-conformism in politics, philosophy or literary tastes.
It is against this background, then, that the nationalist demagogy of the IRA and Sinn Fein seeks to win the allegiance of the revolutionary youth (with a measure of success) for a chauvinist and petty bourgeois concept of national unity. To this extent this demagogy has found a response in quasi-socialist circles and among Labour elements, and for want of a faith in the efficacy of socialist action, they have drifted towards if not an open justification of physical force and direct action, then an acquiescence in the use of these methods by the anti-socialist, anti-democratic IRA and Sinn Fein.
With the emergency of an influential and anti-imperialist current in the Irish Labour Party the Irish working class movement could take the initiative on the unity question.
Without the Imperial Preference that Northern Ireland enjoys, and the tremendous financial assistance from the British exchequer, the artificially inflated economy and the social services (which paradoxically are a monument to the British Labour Party administration, implemented by the Tory Unionist government in Northern Ireland to justify their integral position in the United Kingdom though politically galling to them) would collapse like a pricked bubble if British patronage ceased in Northern Ireland.
However, considerations like Northern Ireland’s strategic position as part of NATO’s military network are not absent from Britain’s (and quite possibly America’s) attitude, because of the possibility of a united Ireland staying outside current military alignments.
If one can offer an opinion on this vexing question it is this: in any solution that can be found, cognisance must be taken of the intangible elements like loyalty to forms of religious beliefs and cultural and traditional ties of the dissident local majority and national minority in what is now Northern Ireland. The broadest democratic and political rights must be afforded what would be a minority in the national context. Sinn Fein and the IRA would coerce the will and force the consent of the citizens of the area, and would undoubtedly police it for a whole period in an attempt to exorcise what they would consider treasonable and heretical loyalties, as does the regime in Northern Ireland today vis-a-vis the Nationalists.
Only a socialist-led working class party could give these democratic guarantees to the workers of Northern Ireland on the basis of an economic communion: a basic identity of social and economic interests, in collaboration with a real socialist Labour Government at Westminster. Any interim settlement must be a federal one, where each state would be locally autonomous and yet subscribe to a national objective.
2. Labor Action 3 October 1955
Irish Labourites on the griddle
Dublin, 6 September. Dubliners are facing a shut-down of the city’s gas and transport services at the weekend when strike notices expire.
The strike notices were handed in by “Larkin’s union” — the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI) — for a wage boost of 15 per cent. The WUI has spearheaded what is known as the “fifth round” of wage increases, which takes its name from the number of increases conceded since the statutory restrictions on wages ended in 1947.
The Labor Court (an official conciliation-court without legal powers) has become so discredited that even the most conservative union officers refuse to use it In the circumstances, Industry and Commerce Minister Norton has been forced to convene a conference of both employers’ and workers’ organizations to attempt to shore up its falling prestige.
It Is obvious that the government sees the impending economic storm and that Norton, the Labor handmaid of the government, has been given the dirty task of urging wage restraint on the unions. Clearly the “fifth round” may be the death knell of the government. The “Pull Down Prices” program of the Labor Party when it joined the government has proved to be an empty gimmick to justify fat jobs for the boys.
Further political storms are blowing-up. Last fall, world tea prices began to soar, and the government, under pressure from the Labor Party, gambled on a price fall within the year, and subsidized the existing price by $4 million. But the price didn’t fall, and if the capitalist minister of Finance has his way there will be a 20 per cent rise in the present price of 75 cents per pound. If this happens, a revolt in the ranks of the Labor Party seems certain.
Labor in the government is committed to the full implementation of De Valera’s Social Health Act of 1953. This finds an echo in the fall of the last coalition in 1951. A united front of Catholic bishops and the Irish Medical Association (IMA) at that time killed a more progressive measure piloted by the petty-bourgeois radical Dr. Browne. The De Valera government that took office that year under pressure from Browne & Co (who held the balance of power) resurrected the bill in a watered-down form; but again the bishops and the IMA succeeded in delaying portions of the act. The Labor Party is again committed to the “implementation in full of the 1953 Health Act.”
It will be interesting to watch the Labor strategists manoeuvre to keep their lush jobs by avoiding an open break with the reactionary ministers in the cabinet on this issue.
3. Labor Action 17 October 1955
Irish flirt with German finance
In a recent speech in Germany, Norton, Labor’s Minister for Industry in the government coalition, indicated the Irish government’s desire to facilitate the investment of German industrial capital in Ireland.
Sharp criticism of the proposals came from British capitalist circles, and underlined the imperial preference enjoyed by Ireland under several trade pacts. Warnings were issued that any attempt to allow German capital to penetrate Britain’s market via the Irish back door would necessitate a review of the Irish trade position. This would be a severe body-blow to the Irish economy.
Another situation the development of which has a tremendous bearing on the Irish economy is the proposed absorption of Denmark into the British Commonwealth. In terms of bacon, butter, eggs, dairy and farm produce, rearrangement following on this constitutional alignment would mean a virtual squeeze out of Irish produce from British markets.
But an element of balance introduced into the lopsided industrial economy of Britain would be of inestimable value to Britain, and could well help to solve her balance of payments position.
The expected shut-down of transport and gas services in the city mentioned in my last letter did not take place.
At the eleventh hour the intervention of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin in the gas dispute led to further talks between the unions and. the employers and the eventual acceptance by the workers of a contract only differing in a minor degree (question of retroactive payment for two weeks) from the original terms offered, i.e., increases ranging from 8 per cent to 10 per cent in basic rates.
Transport workers agreed to await the findings of the Labor Court. The court recommended the employers pay increases up to 12 per cent of basic wages.
The members of two out of three transport unions in the city’s services accepted the court’s recommendation. The third union, the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI), rejected the recommendation, though it is reported that the National Executive will recommend its acceptance, because the WUI have a minority of transport workers.
Another strike threat, if given effect, will assume the character of a general strike, by the Fitters or Engineers (Machinists). These men maintain and service all mechanized operations in transport, power, newspapers, airways, hospitals, etc. Anywhere a machine runs, it runs by virtue of these men. A strike of this kind could paralyze the country.
From the plough to the stars! The International Astronomical Association held its 1955 conference in Dublin. A six-man Russian delegation, together with several colonial stooge delegations from East Europe, lent a personal touch to the new-look Kremlin strategy.
The leader of the delegation in his only public utterance referred to the “warm friendship that existed always between the Russians and Irish peoples.” Yet repeated Russian vetos have kept Ireland out of the UN! Cosmic truth has nothing to do with Stalinist illusion.
The unfortunate plight of the Stalinist scientists was underscored by an article in the Sunday Press which confirmed the attendance of at least one known MVD agent “seeded” into the Rumanian delegation. At the same time the front of the Russo-Irish peace offensive was somewhat dented when the Irish authorities (no doubt acting under orders from the ecclesiastical centre) refused Russian ambassador to Britain Jacob Malik a visa to visit Dublin during the conference.
4. Labor Action 7 November 1955
Irish Laborites under attack for coalition collaboration policy
Dublin, 12 October. The coalition government in Ireland is losing some sleep over the economic crisis which is daily gathering momentum, with inflation and the price-wage spiral having their effect on the workers’ standards.
The cornerstone of the government is threatened by the militant attitude of the unions as the latter seek to preserve their wage positions. Labor Party elements in the coalition are wincing at the arm-twisting technique of the unions.
These Laborites are attempting to allay the mounting criticism against their wretched policy of collaboration with the clerical-ridden reactionaries of Fine Gael (United Ireland), through a series of articles in the weekly tabloid Times Pictorial justifying continued support for the government.
It is abundantly clear that these Labor politicians are doing their damnedest to hold down their fat jobs in the administration and perhaps a ministerial pension as well after years in office. The continued support of the government must be decided by a policy resolution at the party’s annual conference next year. Hence the “theoretical” smokescreen for the membership.
The Stalinist undercover-men in the Labor Party’s Dublin organization have in this connection emerged as the “radical” theoreticians of MacDonaldism, i.e., of coalitionism. And the pay-off? It is membership, in this, that and the other governmental commissions where Labor ministers have influence, in consideration of dirty chores done.
On the other hand, the official Stalinist organization, the Irish Workers League, has come out in its organ Workers’ Voice with devastating “Third Period” attacks on the coalition.
Yet their darling, Deputy Jim Larkin (who scorns their open political advances), has consistently acted as a left cover for. the wretchedly corrupt right-wing leaders. He has all but claimed his mantle of political respectability, and it seems unlikely that the Stalinists will ever again get near enough to derobe him and lay bare his former association with the Stalinist movement in this country of some 20 years ago.
It is evident that the Irish Labor Party has reached a crisis in its evolution. Economic and political events are posing the question of a radical transformation of the economic and social basis of Irish society: the undercapitalisation of the land and industry; unemployment and mass emigration as a permanent feature of the economy; the demagogic appeal by the biggest of the two conservative parties (De Valera’s) for the erection of a welfare state to disorient working class support for the Labor Party; the clerical stranglehold that virtually robs parliament of its sovereignty and makes a part-fiction of adult suffrage; and the threat to democracy and a free working class Inherent in the neofascist-putschist IRA.
The conservatism of the Labor leadership allows the two capitalist parties to continue the fiction of independent existence, and dissipates the energies of the working class on the “lesser evil” merry-go-round.
The once-revolutionary bourgeoisie here has exhausted its mission in Ireland, in spite of the “new look” five-year plan of De Valera’s party (which this correspondent will discuss in a later article). Only the vista of socialism can call up the energy, the dynamism, the capacity for struggle, the ideological and physical motive forces for a further push along the road of human progress and freedom in Ireland. This is the practical issue that is never faced by the Realpolitikers of the Irish Labor Party.
5. Labor Action 5 December 1955
In Ireland two rival labor centres are merging
Dublin, 16 November. Moves are afoot to unite the two trade union centres — the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Congress of Irish Unions (CIU). Next January, delegate conferences of both centres will discuss a joint unity document after ten years of separate existence.
The political and psychological conditions attendant on the split in 1945 are now virtually non-existent. The political monopoly of De Valera from 1932 to 1948 has been broken.
Lemass, De Valera’s lieutenant, when faced with a political radicalization of the workers in the early war years, exploited a bitter personal quarrel in the leadership of the TUC. It is assumed generally that Lemass conspired with right-wing leaders to break away, by promises of political patronage, in their aims to snatch the membership of the so-called “English” unions. The substance of this claim is that the1941 Trade Union Act gave the Irish unions legal powers to put comparable “English” unions out of business. Therefore those elements who connived with Lemass needed some “principled” justification to start member-snatching.
It was obvious that to exploit their position under the law, Irish union leaders with unscrupulous designs on “English” union members had to leave the TUC. This is where the justifiable “principle” enters. The chauvinist slogan of “Irish unions for Irishmen” was calculated to start an avalanche of members from the TUC, which was overloaded with “English” unions.
However, the break was confined to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (led by an “Irish Gompers” if there ever was one — William O’Brien) and several small craft unions with ambitious officers.
As an organizational manoeuvre, the secession was a dismal failure. The only attempt by an Irish union to use the legal device was defeated by a High Court decision handed down to the National Union of Railwaymen in 1947, decreeing that the relevant section-of the act was unconstitutional.
The following year, 1948, set the seal on the decline of the CIU. In that year De Valera’s 16 years of uninterrupted rule was ended by his defeat in the general election.
From there on, the life of the CIU has been characterized by several splits-off into the TUC. and a rapprochement by sections of the CIU leadership with the TUC-based Labor Party. With the declining fortunes of De Valera’s Fianna Fail (Tory) party, the CIU bureaucracy finds it difficult to peddle its political wares profitably. Hence the move toward unity.
Another consideration in this question of unity is the needs of the Labor ministers in the government coalition. Norton, the senior Labor minister, is charged with “making the economy work,” but is hampered by the militant wage-happy mood of the union ranks.
Added to this, the leaders of both congresses are sensitive to the competitive uncertainties of separate existence. A wage movement initiated by the smallest affiliate of either congress is pounced upon by its opposite number in the other congress and a whole pattern of wage demands unfolds. Union officers dare not concede the militant initiative to their opposite number. Union organizers still count heads for a living.
In this climate, Norton hasn’t an earthly chance of getting top union agreement on wage restraint.
Norton also hopes that in a united congress the corrupt right-wing CIU elements will hog-tie any potential threat from the very critical elements in the TUC, who at the last Labor Party conference came out sharply against the coalition’s economic policy which was being touted by Norton on the conference platform, a policy amounting to recommending laissez-faire to the unions. Straw in the wind: a proportionately higher number of CIU bureaucrats have been placed in the several non-elective adjuncts to the elected administration.
If I credit Norton with this grandiose strategy it is because he is the arch-Machiavelli in the government ranks. The capitalist ministers are universally hated by the working class, and unless Norton can circumvent the growing critical mood of the workers the government’s days are numbered.
But Norton is sowing dragon’s seed. A united congress of labor will command tremendous prestige and might well upset the balance of forces inside the Labor Party. For purely mercenary and personal reasons, many new aspirants to Norton’s position may emerge. In any event a tremendous impetus will be unleashed politically by the industrial unity of the working class.
In this period of organizational flux, solid gains can be made for the erection of a socialist left wing in the Labor Party.
At Westminster last week, Tory-Unionists Betty and Grosvenor were presented to the House of Commons as the “members of Parliament” for the Mid-Ulster and Tyrone-Fermanagh divisions of North Ireland. The quote-marks are used because these Unionist interlopers were seated by a judicial decision which set aside the democratic majority decision of the nationalist voters in these two areas of North Ireland.
Messrs. Clarke and Mitchell, Irish Republican Army activists who are serving 10 years in Belfast jail for their part in the raid on a British military barracks in North Ireland, were the ones actually returned to Parliament (Mitchell on two occasions), with substantial majorities, as abstentionist MPs.
According to a British law introduced 100 years ago to deal with essentially the same situation, any person serving a sentence for treason-felony is ineligible to sit in Parliament, but, according to the same law, not ineligible to offer himself for election.
Ironical jeers of “Here come the members for the Queen’s Bench division” were shouted at the Unionists from the Labor benches. “Queen’s Bench” means, of course, the legal fiddle.
Three IRA activists were sentenced to life for their part in the raid on Arborfield Barracks in Berkshire, England. The viciousness of the sentence was aimed at deterring others from pursuing the same line of action.
How stupid is the logic of the British security blimps! Punitive measures like these are the emotional mill-grist of the IRA. Martyrdom for Ireland was always calculated to swell the ranks of the IRA with young fearless militant cadres more determined than ever that direct and violent action was the only arbiter.
The economic crisis has broken and exposed the bankruptcy of the ruling government coalition, Labor and all. In the teeth of the inflationary spiral, the only advice offered the workers by their erstwhile cabinet representatives is: Take it up with your unions.
They have indicated their unwillingness either to control prices, or to cushion the impact of these rises on the workers’ standards by subsidies. The declared policy of the government is: The lid is off; let the economic grouping fight it out, and the devil take the hindmost.
The Dublin Trades Union Council representing 40,000 union members has gone on record protesting the cynical sidestepping by the Labor ministers of their oft-declared intention to put teeth into the price-control machinery when canvassing party support for participation in the cabinet. During the Council debate on the protest motion, repeated demands were made by the delegates that the Labor ministers quit the government.
The Labor ministers are becoming so discredited that in order to cling to office, attempts are being made to guy the Dublin Trade Union Council, which is the only significant working-class body that has consistently exposed the corrupt and opportunist character of the Labor Party leaders’ coalition policy, from a socialist standpoint. Norton, Labor’s senior minister, who is as venal a labor-faker as ever graced any social-democratic party, is known to be preoccupied by the outspoken critical role of the Council.
6. Labor Action 20 February 1956
Merger of trade union centres will give Irish labor a lift
Dublin, 22 January 1956. On 5 January the two trade union centres — the Trade Union Congress and the Congress of Irish Unions — held special conferences to discuss and decide on the unity document drawn up by their respective teams of negotiations. The negotiators had met some two dozen times within two years, under the chairmanship of Prof. Busteed (University College, Cork).
The special conferences voted for the unity proposals contained in the document, by substantial majorities.
In the case of the CIU, it is reported that the decision was unanimous. This is a far cry from the CIU’s anti-unity intransigence of even four years ago.
The anti-unity forces at the TUC meeting rolled up one-third of the votes cast. This was surprising, since the initiative on unity had been taken by the TUC.
The anti-unity vote at the TUC meeting was drawn from the Woodworkers, the Engineers, and the bureaucratized Irish offspring of the Transport & General Workers Union, together with a sprinkling of native time-servers whose independent and factional activities would be eclipsed in a united movement The three unions mentioned above are what are colloquially known as “English unions” by virtue of the fact that, their headquarters are in Britain, and they represent at worst the Unionist mentality on the trade union level. (“Unionist” means favouring political union with Britain.)
Actions such as these lay bare the basic political division on the national question and the constitutional character of the two states in Ireland: one existing by integration proper in the United Kingdom, and the other born of the independent struggle and its political attitudes subjectively conditioned by that struggle, though economically and objectively dependent on Britain’s patronage.
The unity document itself provides for the setting up of a provisional united organization of a federal character with a 16-man steering committee drawn from each centre charged with the task of providing a constitution and the consummation of the merger by 1962. The congresses in a formal sense will continue their separate existences, but the emphasis will be on joint activity at every level and at every juncture.
Quite probably the first major task will be on future wage policy and movements, costs and prices. Just now the credit squeeze attendant on the one per cent increase in the bank rate must immediately affect costs and prices. Unemployment is mounting and the official index stands at 60,000 at the moment. This must be further amplified as manufacturers cut back stockpiling and plant expansion on bank overdrafts, in the face of the jacked-up bank rates. Building, municipal and speculative, for working-class and middle-class housing will take a nosedive by putting rents and mortgage repayments out of income reach.
The background of the economic facts of life in Ireland today conditions the latest activity of Minister Norton, the Labor Party’s leader. Norton’s attempt to sell Ireland to U.S. capitalism on his American junket is either an extended hay ride or the prelude to a deal on NATO. It is not mere coincidence that Premier Costello is to lecture on Constitutional law at Yale later this year.
It should be remembered that a major policy decision on Ireland’s external relations was announced at an international gathering of lawyers in Canada in 1949 by the same Mr. Costello who was the premier in the first coalition government. It is well known that Norton is the government’s “fixer.” Sincere apologies to bona-fide stage-managers.
Getting back to the TUC conference, it was remarkable if only for the bizarre antics of the Stalinists. Betty Sinclair, a leading Stalinist militant representing the Belfast Trades Council, lashed the anti-unity leaders of the Woodworkers and the Transport Workers for their capitulation to the sectarian and opportunist Tory politics of Unionism (political union with Britain). Holmes, a former faithful Stalinist hack in the Transport Workers’ Belfast sector, moved the reference back of the unity document. In. the voting line-up, Sinclair and the uninhibited Stalinists in the Electrical Trade Union voted solidly for unity, while the Stalinists in the various levels of the bureaucracy of the Woodworkers, Transport Workers and Engineers jumped into line when their union top brass sounded the rally.
A feeling of optimism has pervaded the ranks of the movement again on the morrow of the unity moves. The industrial weaknesses attendant on the existence of a formal organisational break, particularly in industries where there is a multiplicity of unions, are within reach of correction.
Long overdue steps to rationalize and assess jurisdiction on the basis of industries and functions can now be taken. The educational work of the movement can be given an enormous push forward and the most important element is the reintegration of the Labor Party as a potentially powerful vehicle of the political aspirations of the Irish working class.
7. Labor Action 5 March 1956
Irish Labor left is pushing for break with government coalition
Dublin, 23 February. The political situation here is pregnant with possibilities for the Labor left. Hard on the heels of the setting up of the provisional united trade-union centre, Larkin and Conrey, leaders of the country’s two largest general unions, have come out sharply against the know-nothing policies of the government coalition (which includes the Irish Labor Party) in the face of the economic crisis.
Conrey and Larkin, both obviously under pressure from their members, hove demanded increased public control of banking and credit and, in turn, at union gatherings and Labor forty membership meetings, flayed the government for the shift to economic chaos, inherent in the moth-eaten capitalist device of deflation.
Growing unemployment and soaring prices at the same time underscore the absolute dependence of the Irish economy. Full employment in Britain and West Europe inflates the cost of materials and services with devastating effect on the Irish price structure. The Tory credit squeeze in Britain is calculated to depress consumption and investment in an effort to sustain the balance of foreign payments and to boost exports at competitive prices, in the cut-throat climate of the world market.
The automatic application, by the Irish government (including its Labor ministers) of the British Tory chancellor’s deflationary measures to a situation (underinvestment and chronic underemployment) that is basically different from Britain is deepening the crisis of Irish capitalist society.
Even that diffident apologist for capitalism, De Valera, was prompted to remark, in a by-election speech at Kerry last week, that the incompetence of this capitalist coalition administration was imperilling the existence and social solidarity of bourgeois interests, by their resolute attitude of the government to the needs of the economy.
He said that two currents of political thought found solace in the growing crisis: the “back-to-Britain”-school who denigrated the independence movement, and the revolutionary socialists, who would exploit the economic breakdown. He hardly had in mind the Labor Party or the Stalinists in his reference to revolutionary socialism.
Against this background a minor revolt is scheduled for the Labor Party conference in April, a revolt against continuing Labor support to the coalition. Several motions submitted demand an action program that the party would use to highlight a break with the capitalist parties in the government: measures like nationalization of the banks, of the flour-mills, soak-the-rich taxes, import-export control, and state purchasing abroad to cut out the agents who chisel up the cost.
Labor Minister Norton can be expected to blow his top, because he is the minister responsible for the economic well-being of the country, as well as being the senior Labor minister in the cabinet.
It is believed that union leaders will play a major role in this debate, because of the militant mood and pressure of the ranks against the attempt to lay off the crisis on them. A new critical mood is apparent in those sections of the party that in the past faithfully reflected Norton’s craven collaboration with the most reactionary capitalist elements in the government.
One Sunday newspaper columnist, who is usually on the inside of Labor, developments, hints at the possibility that Norton may be a McDonald act and break organizationally with the party. His ideological break has not been in doubt for years.
Lemass, who is De Valera’s economic expert and Norton’s predecessor in the Ministry of Industry, discarded Norton’s current economic theories 20 years ago. Such is the measure of Norton’s thinking — even in a capitalist sense.
Larkin is being touted as the leader of the Labor left in certain Labor Party circles. However, Larkin’s behaviour is enigmatic. He has done some dirty chores in recent times for the right-wing leaders, while continuing to mouth left-wing phrases, together with an occasional genuflection to the Stalinist elements in the party.
It is agreed that he speaks from strength now, because of his influential position in the united trade-union centre, and that he is becoming more outspoken and critical of the crassly ignorant and opportunist line of the Labor ministers.
Local Stalinists here, with the agility of mental Houdinis, are lapping up the popular-front line emanating from the 20th Communist Party circus in Moscow and are endeavouring — wryly, of course — to justify Mikoyan’s debunking of Stain after collaborating with it all for a lifetime. Now that the divinity of the Father of All the Russians has been exploded and the Great Father himself is no more; we have denunciation all around.
8. Labor Action 9 April 1956
Coalition vote falls in Irish by-election
Dublin, 16 March. Hang together or hang separately: that is the axiom of the government coalition. In the North Kerry by-election, it was De Valera against the rest, namely, against the government coalition of the conservative Fine Gael, Labor Party, Farmers, and Republicans, all ganged up to present a façade of unity to the voters.
The government candidate was a nominee of the Republicans, the daughter of the late deputy whose place was being filled, following his death in a road accident. She had been press-ganged into the election by the ward-heeling requirements of Irish politics. A girl of 21, her only political attributes were her father’s name and his tragic death.
However, the combined government vote behind her went down by 2000, while De Valera’s rose by 900, indicating a perceptible shift from the. government parties.
Factors were the economic crisis, and the palpably demagogic line of De Valera’s party, which was possible because there was no working class party independently in the running pledged to a program of radical economic and social change. The Labor Party is part of the coalition, unfortunately.
Confusion worse confounded characterizes the Stalinist parrots here on the line of-the 20th Congress. Stalin, stripped of his .diabolical divinity by his former lieutenants, has left the party followers floundering in an ideological morass. Years of automatic responses and monolithic concepts will stand them in good stead however.
9. Labor Action 6 August 1956
Irish Labour left loses out
Dublin, July 1. The 1956 conference of the Irish Labor Party has come and gone. The revolt of the ranks against the continued tie-up of the ministers in the capitalist coalition which was anticipated by this correspondent fizzled out. The only socialist criticism of the coalition came from two isolated sections of the party, N. Wicklow and Dublin S. W.
The N. Wicklow comrades withdrew the motion “to leave the government” at the last moment but only in order to avoid an outright and overwhelming endorsement of the collaborationist line of the leaders; but first there was a long debate that underscored the torpor of the ranks on the crucial question for the party’s future.
Nonetheless, the anti-coalition utterances of non-affiliated union leaders and isolated criticisms by local party leaders have had their effect on the Labor coalition cabal led by Norton. In his reply to the “break the coalition” debate, he was the soul of democratic humility.
Whereas in the past he has thundered against the subversive socialist minority and heaped personal abuse on the heads of the few socialists who dared expose his policy of capitulation to the forces of capitalist political reaction, on this occasion he offered his “title deeds of office” (as he termed it) to the party’s parliamentary group or to the party conference at any time, if either one or the other body indicated this course. He knew in advance of course that his personal influence and his ability to dole out largesse to the faithful made such a demand unreal at this juncture.
Just prior to the conference, about a half-dozen party members from the Dublin organization were hauled before an inquisitorial commission of the party and were accused of activities “harmful to the party”. It was generally assumed that pre-conference discussions among socialist members was being used to suspend their membership and preclude their attendance at the conference. It is reported, however, that several members of the commission had very red faces when the session ended. As usual the dirty hatchet work was shared by a brace of former Communist Party members.
Speaking of the post-Stalin Stalinists: Feverish moves are being made to erect a front organization with an organ like the New Statesman and Nation. Hard on the heels of the Khrushchev line-switch, overtures were being made even to intransigent anti-CP elements for support to the venture.
The CP, which never really amounted to much here at any juncture, has suffered a tremendous body-blow to its coterie of members and sympathizers by the debunking of Stalin. For them, with their minds conditioned by Catholic authoritarian doctrine, the passage to Stalin worship was quite effortless. The subsequent expose by Khrushchev, of Stalin’s undivine character in certain selected fields, has brought the whole doctrinal edifice into question.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is bound to benefit at the expense of the Irish Workers’ League (the CP). The Catholic Church, ever awake in its propaganda activities, has recently featured at its Sociological Congress none other than Douglas Hyde, ex-editor of the English Daily Worker, no doubt with the intention of recruiting the totalitarian faithful back to Rome.
Unemployment will become a real problem in this country as full employment in Britain becomes less full and as the impact of automation is really felt on the British economy. Unless emigration to the U.S. and the Dominions supersedes emigration to Britain (12,000 to 15,000 per year), a social crisis will be on the order of the day. The danger is that in the absence of a genuine revolutionary socialist party, a nationalist fascist mass movement led by Sinn Fein will bid for power on the slogan of ending the partition of the country as a means of ending the economic crisis.
10. Labor Action 15 October 1956
The Irish Labor Party: a sketch
To describe the Irish Labor Party within its present limits as analogous to the British Labor Party would be inaccurate indeed.
Ideologically and organizationally they differ as do the economies from which they derive sustenance. The Irish Labor Party with its rural bias is in a much weaker position organizationally than is the urban-based British Labour Party.
In the British Party there is a constant stimulus from trade union consciousness flowing over into social-democratic political forms; this gives the BLP its stable proletarian character. This element is absent from Irish Labor politics today. What trade union militancy did emerge in the early days of the petty industrialization of the larger towns was siphoned off into the all-class crucible of the independence movement.
In the early days of the Second World War when a radical ferment was induced by attempts to cripple the unions by legislation, the Irish Labor Party made some remarkable headway throughout the country. Tragically, however, a bitter personal feud at the top of the Trade Union Congress was manipulated by the Tory-nationalist party of De Valera; and the TUC and the Labor Party split down the middle. What was termed the national wing — which had initiated the break — rehabilitated the decadent Fianna Fail party of De Valera for a further period.
Ideologically the Labor Party, from its birth at the Trade Union Congress of 1912 till the middle ‘30s, bore the imprint of James Connolly’s socialist philosophy.
After Connolly was executed for leading the first workers’ army against the British imperial power in Ireland in 1916, the tempo of the direct-actionist struggle for national independence tended to blunt the edge of the class struggle. Bourgeois revolutionaries and patriotic mercenaries dwarfed the post-Connolly mediocrities of Irish Labor.
The new Irish state born in 1922 found the revolutionary middle class in political control. Their quid pro quo for their revolutionary activity was economic hegemony. They evolved away from the social implications of the Proclamation of 1916 — inspired by Connolly — and became the integrated ruling capitalist class that we know today.
Side by side with the growing conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie, the nondescript Labor leaders became equally conservative in their social and political attitudes. Bit by bit, the revolutionary socialist theses of Connolly were expunged from the Labor and trade-union movement. The socialistic demagogy of De Valera underscored the bankruptcy of the Labor leaders. The country settled down to the sodden rule of the middle class for 20 years.
During this time the Catholic hierarchy emerged as a major political factor in the recession of the Irish Labor Party as an independent socialist party. It was the Irish National Teachers Organization (no doubt acting on the instruction of, the hierarchy) that, at the 1938 Labor Party conference, sponsored the motion to remove the constitutional aspiration that the “aim of the party is the establishment of a workers’ republic.”
The adoption of that motion formalized a political reaction that had long since been a fact.
Today the Irish Labor Party is a caricature of a social-democratic party. Though partly based on the trade unions, it is nevertheless, in the matter of political and economic theory, far to the right of the Trade Union Congress, though the TUC has a working agreement with it;
How long this modus vivendi will continue is hard to say. The unity of the trade-union movement is proceeding apace and the balance of forces may well alter politically inside the Labor Party when full unity is consummated.
For Irish socialists this development offers a fruitful field of work. Greater trade-union influence in the party will be a means of correcting the non-class mentality that has condemned the Irish Labor Party to the role of providing a lucrative living for a select bunch of unscrupulous politicians exploiting the devoted allegiance of workers who were nurtured in the Connolly tradition of independent labor politics.
11. Labor Action 5 November 1956
Discontent bubbling in Dublin
Dublin, Oct. 7. The Provisional United Organization of the two trade union congresses (in the process of merging) has in recent weeks been reluctantly forced into the open to call a halt to the deflationary policies of the Labor-supported coalition government. These policies have been creating widespread unemployment. The united leadership’s hand was forced by an irate membership given a lead by the 80,000-strong Dublin Trades Union Council.
Playing possum for two and a half years, the upper crust of the two congresses have for their silence been on the receiving end of the political-patronage queue, while their members were being flung out of employment and forced to emigrate in tens of thousands to Britain. The most odious and vicious anti-working-class measures of the Labor ministers in the coalition could not induce the boys in clover to utter a peep. Silence is golden.
Now the wrath of members and local leaders who see the looming economic storm that will shatter their domestic fortunes has exploded in the august precincts of PUO headquarters. Binks, last year’s PUO president, politely admonished the two governments in the country (Dublin and Belfast, to show no favouritism) on their lack of sensitivity for workers’ needs. One can expect a lack of sensitivity from the archaic Tory Unionist regime in Belfast; but when among the Dublin ministers are ex-TUC presidents, whose governmental policies are less humane than the double-dyed Tories in Belfast, why the attempt to whitewash them?
Binks referred to the crisis at all because the Dublin TUC had issued a call for demonstrations and protest meetings to head off further measures being contemplated to dismiss workers from public and government services. The Council further demanded that the national trade-union centres, in line with long-standing policy decisions, move against the government and put the squeeze on the Labor ministers, or break with them completely.
Larkin, a member of the PUO and a Labor deputy to boot, sensing the mood of the ranks, came out at a Regional Labor Party Conference with a sharp attack on the government, including its Labor contingent, to head off the harmless speculation of the rank-and-file movement for militant action. This is Larkin’s Stalinist training being applied against the left. He has been a consistent and demagogic supporter of the coalition and it was he who laid down the blueprint for Labor’s participation in the present government at the 1953 Labor Party conference paving the way for the right-wing leadership (Norton and Co.) to lash the small socialist opposition.
In preserving this government set-up, he has used his trade-union position to head off and damp down any militant anti-government movement. Now threatened with the loss of his parliamentary sinecure, he publicly criticizes what he privately upholds and created and what he voted to continue at the jamboree which the cabinet convened to bolster their trembling fortunes in the face of trade-unionist revolt.
Today the Irish Labor Party is a caricature of a social-democratic party. Though partly based on the trade unions, it is nevertheless, in the matter of political and economic theory, far to the right of the Trade Union Congress, though the TUC has a working agreement with it;
How long this modus vivendi will continue is hard to say. The unity of the trade-union movement is proceeding apace and the balance of forces may well alter politically inside the Labor Party when full unity is consummated.
For Irish socialists this development offers a fruitful field of work. Greater trade-union influence in the party will be a means of correcting the non-class mentality that has condemned the Irish Labor Party to the role of providing a lucrative living for a select bunch of unscrupulous politicians exploiting the devoted allegiance of workers who were nurtured in the Connolly tradition of independent labour politics.
12. Labor Action 29 April 1957
Irish vote punishes Laborites
Dublin, 6 April. The coalition government in Ireland is down; the general election is over; and as I write, the votes are being counted.
McBride, one-time leader of the direct-actionist Irish Republican Army, and a constitutionalist since 1947 when he launched his Republican Party, withdrew the support of his three deputies from the government. The course he adopted was urged upon the Irish Labor Party repeatedly in the last 18 months; but the coup de grace was administered by the clever, manoeuvring, opportunist and demagogic lawyer.
Observers are puzzled by McBride’s action. While undoubtedly the tide was running high against the government in recent months, McBride as late as last October supported a motion of confidence in the coalition at an all-party jamboree held to boost the morale of the government’s parliamentary ranks.
It is true that on economic issues he has been mildly critical of the lack of government policies to beat the crisis of mass unemployment. On the issue of the physical-force IRA and the government’s measures to deal with the problem, he has at no time, however, indicated clearly where he stood on the current campaign of engaging in violence across the border.
It is known that the rump of his party, which is largely composed of ex-IRA activists, was chafing at the authorities’ use of the Offences Against the State Act to disperse the IRA, and had thrown down the gauntlet to him to get out and break the government. This he did by presenting a no-conference motion to be taken at the spring session of the parliament.
Fianna Fail (De Valera’s party) was not to be outmaneuvered, however. Rather than troop into the lobby behind McBride (whom they detest with an all-pervading fervour) on his terms, they indicated their intention to present a no-confidence motion themselves. Sensing the ignominy of a prolonged and discreditable debate, the government dissolved parliament to cut their political losses. But too late. De Valera has skated home with something to spare.
The workers, appalled by the utter disregard for principles and ethics by the Labor ministers in the coalition government, have given the Labor Party its answer. The small pre-election force of 19 deputies has been reduced to 12.
Some commentators suggest that this was better than expected. Those who were returned were outstanding personalities, whose membership in the Labor Party has always been only incidental to their ward-heeling activities.
Larkin, sensing the mood of the people and a possible defeat at their hands in South Dublin, refused to contest his seat, which he has held uninterruptedly for 14 years. But he can accept a large measure of the blame for the debacle, having consistently defended and advocated the coalition line inside the Labor Party, from his spurious left position, which derives from his Stalinist associations of long ago.
An indication of the decadence of the Irish Labor Party is the fact that the son of James Connolly, Roddy, contested Larkin’s seat for the party and polled a paltry 1700 votes, coming second-last in a field of 10 candidates. The militant Unemployed Protest Committee had their nominee, John Murphy, an unemployed carpenter, elected in this constituency.
Murphy’s victory spotlights the mass proportions that the unemployment figures had assumed under the coalition in its last months of office.
The highlight of the election was the return of Dr. Noel Browne in Dublin Southeast.
Dr. Browne, a democratic socialist, has had a turbulent existence since entering political life some 10 years ago. At that time he was returned in the 1948 general election as a Republican deputy. His party shared office in the coalition with Labor and the Conservative Fine Gael, Browne becoming minister for Health.
True to his promise, he proceeded to put medicine and the health services on a socialist basis. In 1951, just three years after taking office, the culmination of his efforts was a free Mother and Child Health Service. The powerful Irish Medical Association and the Catholic hierarchy united on a cash and moral basis to defeat the measure.
McBride, the Machiavellian lawyer overshadowed in the party by the brilliant, industrious and honest Browne, drove him from the party and thereby brought the coalition crashing to the ground.
Browne and several of his colleagues who had fought for a secular and socialist accent on politics in Ireland, betrayed by their natural allies, the clerical-indulgent Labor Party, had remarkable successes at the subsequent general election: but they compromised their whole position by actively supporting and subsequently outrightly joining De Valera’s party. Browne’s socialist and secular views found little response in De Valera’s party, which had long since jettisoned its left wing.
The party machine refused to accept Browne as a candidate, and. under pressure from liberals, socialists, left Laborites, and honest citizens, he consented to stand in his old constituency of Dublin Southeast as an independent social-democrat. His victory was remarkable; he polled nearly as many votes as the outgoing prime minister, Costello.
It is interesting to note that perhaps the most militant and active socialist members of the Labor Party’s Dublin organization flocked to support and vote for Browne, the only acknowledged and uncompromising socialist in the whole campaign, including the Labor Party candidates.
Not even the son of Connolly, who was perhaps the greatest socialist Ireland has produced, felt impelled to refer to this great movement which is the hope of humanity everywhere. Browne — the middle-class idealist, the man of integrity, isolated-and surrounded by a handful of adherents — has raised the banner of socialist working-class politics from the mire of the Labor Party sewer.
The victory of Murphy, candidate of the Unemployed Protest Committee, is both a tribute to the class-consciousness of the workers of South Dublin and the Trojan efforts of a tiny group of Stalinist militants who promoted Murphy together with a leading Jesuit (each struggling to cancel out the influence of the other). Truly a remarkable set-up!
These sidelights on the election serve to pick out the positive class features. The overwhelming victory of De Valera (an effective majority of 15-20 votes) was not a pro-De Valera expression but an uncontrolled revulsion against the indifferentism and bankruptcy of the coalition parties.
Even the sectarian and negative Sinn Fein (the political organization of the physical-forcists) which is pledged to abstention from parliament, had a remarkable success, with four deputies elected and polling 50,000 first-preference votes. It appeared as a “new hope” to the cynical and apathetic mass.
What progress would an independent socialist-led Labor Party have made in the context! The decadence of the capitalist parties would have been thoroughly exposed to socialist analysis; and the political conclusions drawn by the working class would have placed a majority Labor government on the political agenda within the next five years.