Rallying round the banner of Labour
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.