Rallying round the banner of Labour

Sat, May 26, 2012, 01:00

The establishment of the Labour Party, in Clonmel in 1912, was accompanied by anxieties about the movement’s prospects if it was to separate from workers’ organisations in Ulster and Britain, writes BARRY DESMOND

THE POLITICAL AND SOCIAL upheavals in Ireland in the early decades of the last century were singularly unconducive to the emergence of a vibrant trade-union and labour movement. Home Rule divided the people and, ultimately, the country; Sinn Féin proclaimed nationalist aspirations; Dublin’s union families were impoverished by the lockout; the first World War brought political trauma, and the 1916 Rising created a national upheaval. Prospects for the development of a new Labour Party were daunting.

The social reality was one of poverty and emigration. Of the 400,000 people in Dublin, more than 87,000 lived in one-room tenements with high infant mortality and rampant tuberculosis. The organisational challenges facing the movement were equally daunting. The 1911 census showed 780,867 persons of an “agricultural class” in widely dispersed holdings and employments. There were 170,749 workers in domestic and related services. The transport companies and the docks were the major employers; the textile and manufacturing industries were largely concentrated in Ulster. In the decade to 1911, 345,000 emigrants left the island.

During these decades the craft trades and their unions dominated the Irish Trades Union Congress, but the new ITGWU had begun to organise and by 1911, with about 4,000 paid-up members, had five of the 75 delegates to the ITUC. Despite the intense opposition of the National Union of Dock Labourers, “Larkin’s Union” had been admitted to the ITUC in 1910 by 40 votes to 10. The ground was being prepared for 1912.

While 1912 is generally accepted as the year of the founding of the Irish Labour Party, debate on the issue within the congress opened much earlier. The tide was beginning to turn more in favour of the politics of Labour, which already had a major presence in Belfast from 1897, and in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and elsewhere from the local elections of 1899. Repeated attempts had been made from 1900 to have such a decision made.

The decision, however, of the 1910 congress annual meeting to reject Larkin’s call for a new Labour Party by 39 votes to 18 was clear-cut.

In July 1911, the parliamentary committee of the ITUC sent a deputation to the chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, seeking changes in the new National Insurance Act to include medical benefits for Irish workers.

Congress had met a few weeks earlier in Galway, where it was proposed by Thomas Murphy and William O’Brien of Dublin that an Irish Labour Party be established. Murphy asserted that “it was a deplorable thing to say that they could not look to a solitary Labour man in this country to represent them in the House of Commons”. Tom Johnson of Belfast, a delegate from the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks, said that “they should organise to support their own interests and federate as closely as possible with the English Labour Party”.

William Walker of Belfast proposed an amendment that the ITUC should affiliate to the British Labour Party; a lengthy debate ensued. Ominously, there was a confrontational contribution from James Larkin in favour of the motion and denouncing Walker, a prominent executive member and vice-chairman, of the British Labour Party. He had been a delegate to the first meeting of the ITUC, in 1894, when he was appointed secretary.

Walker’s support for unionism and opposition to Home Rule had provoked a bitter polemic with James Connolly. The head offices of many of the unions affiliated to the ITUC were also affiliated to the British Labour Party, and Walker asserted that “there was no reason why they should divorce themselves from their English and Scottish fellow-workers by supporting a purely local party”.

Larkin disingenuously countered that “the Labour Party in the United States, Canada or Australia would never allow an English Labour Party to manage their affairs”. Walker’s amendment was carried by 32 votes to 29.

When the annual meeting of the ITUC assembled in Clonmel in May 1912, the 84 delegates were deeply preoccupied by the social and economic consequences of the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill in the Commons by Asquith in April. Ireland was to have 42 representatives in the 164-member House of Commons, which would retain control of national insurance for at least a decade. Delegates were again agitated about the impact of the National Insurance Act on future medical, unemployment and mortality benefits.

The issue of a new Labour Party in Ireland was again revisited, this time by James Connolly, home from the United States in the summer of 1910 and now Belfast branch secretary of the ITGWU. Connolly proposed that “the independent representation of Labour upon all public boards be included among the objects of this congress”, adding that one day at least was to be set aside at the congress annually for the discussion of all questions relating to the representation of Labour. Unions were to be asked to levy members a shilling a year for the purpose.

“When the representatives of Ireland came to meet in the old historic building in Dublin” – College Green – “were the workers to be the only class that was not to be represented?” Connolly asked. He was supported by Larkin, delegate from the Dublin executive of the ITGWU, who once again became embroiled with a fellow delegate on a personal issue, and by William O’Brien of the Dublin Trades Council.

John Flanagan from the National Amalgamated Union of Labour in Belfast said: “It was an undoubted fact that the Nationalist Party – the heads of the Liberal and Nationalist Parties – were capitalist in their views, and it was quite possible that Mr John Redmond and his party might be more reactionary than the present Ulster Tory Party.” The motion was adopted by 49 votes to 18.

The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, was deeply concerned about the prospect of parliamentary competition from an Irish Labour Party, although his relations with the ITUC were generally constructive. He met all deputations they requested, and in 1909 he assured congress that “we will in future, as in the past, endeavour to fulfil for Ireland in the fullest sense the functions of a Labour Party, believing that we are the Labour Party as far as Ireland is concerned”.

It was not until June 1914, when the ITUC met in Dublin, that the constitutional structure of the party would be established. Larkin was in the chair and he, Connolly, O’Brien and Johnson, aided by DR Campbell, the congress treasurer, and PT Daly, its secretary, were determined to fully implement the 1912 resolution, delayed by the turmoil caused by the 1913 lockout and outbreak of the first World War.

In July 1913, the parliamentary committee of the ITUC, led by Larkin, met the British Labour Party leaders in the House of Commons, in London, and again in Dublin in September. Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie were deeply concerned about competition from an Irish party, but during lengthy discussions on the implications of the Government of Ireland Bill the Irish deputation remained adamant that they would go ahead.

Meanwhile, the ITUC parliamentary committee, largely William O’Brien, Tom Johnson, and PT Daly, set about preparing a draft constitution for a renamed “Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party”, agreed by the 1914 Dublin annual meeting that June.

Connolly would be elected to the national executive together with MJ O’Lehane, William O’Brien, Thomas MacPartlin, Richard O’Carroll and PT Daly as secretary.

In late October James Larkin left for the United States in a state of mental and physical exhaustion. The ITGWU was in dire straits in its leadership, finances and membership.

The third Home Rule Bill became law in September 1914. By agreement with the Ulster Unionists and the Irish Party, however, it was suspended for the duration of the war. The Irish Volunteers landed guns at Howth; the Volunteers split over the war and the National Volunteers were formed.

Connolly revitalised the Irish Citizen Army while John Redmond lauded the Volunteers’ support for the war. In these momentous events the ITUC had no option but to cancel its 1915 annual meeting. The impetus to develop the Irish Labour Party was diminished, but, when the 22nd annual meeting convened at Sligo Town Hall in August 1916, it assembled under the title “ITUC and Labour Party”.

The pressure to establish the Labour Party on a firmer basis continued under the leadership of Thomas MacPartlin, William O’Brien, Tom Johnson and DR Campbell, and the executive members of the ITUC and LP issued a “Labour Manifesto” in November 1916, the first party-political manifesto from a gathering of trade unionists in the history of the island. In the aftermath of the Rising, however, it received little public attention.

It vehemently opposed the exclusion of Ulster, as “such disruption would destroy all our hopes of achieving the unity of Ireland through the unity of the workers”, and opposed the extension of the Military Service Act to Ireland. It proposed reductions in the price of food and fuel; the rehousing of workers in towns and cities; the promotion of productive schemes of reafforestation, land reclamation, the capturing of the power of rivers; land acquisition and co-operative farms; compulsory tillage; nationalisation of railways; a national minimum wage; and a “fair wage clause” in all public contracts.

Barry Desmond is former deputy leader of the Labour Party, minister for health and social welfare, MEP and member of the European Court of Auditors