Speaking at the 2nd Frank Conroy Commemoration, Rayner O’Connor Lysaght said” parallels can be drawn from Conroy’s ideals and the earlier 1913 Dublin Lockout”.
The Dublin Lockout is a major twentieth century industrial contest in these islands. It is arguably the most memorable lockout. There were bigger citywide disputes, notably in Belfast, but the disputes there were really harbingers of larger struggles but, all too often ones of greater humiliations. Dublin’s lockout was a defeat for the workers, but their resistance inspired their comrades elsewhere, stimulating them to further struggles such as came to pose the possibility of their class taking state power.The Lockout has been portrayed too often as the climax of the initial period of the general workers mobilising for a place in the sun. Less analysed is its longterm effect on the Irish labour movement and through this on the overall history of Ireland subsequently.
Immediately, the Lockout was a pyrrhic victory for the employers. They did not abandon their central demand, the ban on Irish Transport Union members, but only its inspirer, Murphy, the tramway boss, and a few others enforced it. The union was weaker but it survived. Its example inspired workers to organised themselves outside Dublin. In 1916 the Chamber of Commerce was to claim that the Rising was a revival of 1913 activism. For now, however, the Dublin workers were weary. Their militancy would begin to revive only during the first World War, provoked by austerity and becoming general only from the end of 1917. Indeed, the tramway workers would not organise themselves successfully for twenty years. Less obvious than all this was the lockout’s effect on the Labour leadership.
This group recognised that the workers had suffered a serious setback. The question was, why. Part of the answer was obvious; once again, the strong well-organised British unions had refused adequate support to a trade dispute fought by weaker Irish unions (Even in Ireland, the British-based National Union of Railwaymen was organising the largest number of workers, not the I.T.G.W.U.) . Most Irish labour leaders accepted this as the whole story and responded by putting their faith in building their union organisations to limit dependence on their British comrades.
This should not be exaggerated. The majority of union leaders did not start thinking defensively. For them, the Lockout itself had been, after all, a defensive fight. Nor did those with socialist perspectives abandon them. Rather, like too many of their comrades abroad, they assumed that Socialism was inevitable but had no strategy developed to achieve it. Accordingly, they followed the prescription of their leading theorist, James Connolly, and sought to build an industrial republic (their unions) within the shell of the political state to a point where the unions would break out of that shell. Organisation was prioritised against agitation and education, education being restricted to propaganda.
Larkin and Connolly recognised that something more was needed. Connolly, the theorist, examined the problem of bureaucratic degeneration in the Scottish Forward and in his leaflet ‘Old Wine in New Bottles’. His choice of organ showed that he considered his Irish comrades were inoculated from the British degeneration by their position in a colony, as, indeed, they were, just not enough. More generally, though in ‘Old Wine’, he insisted on the importance of maintaining militancy, he did not examine how this was to be done. He had experienced the political disagreements of five tightly-organised self-styled vanguard parties, and had come to regard such parties as irrelevant.
More pragmatic, Larkin did see the need for working class leadership distinct from the union structure. His choice was the Irish Citizen Army. This body attracted many advanced and often socialist trade unionists but though it made them readier for a military struggle, it could not develop their consciousness as to how to prepare politically for one. In any case, the outbreak of world war and Larkin’s departure for America ended his attempt. The Citizen Army survived as, essentially, the ITGWU’s military arm. Connolly succeeded Larkin, becoming their union’s Acting General Secretary and Army commander, preaching revolution openly and preparing it behind the backs even of his own comrades.
Perhaps, had that planned moment been postponed, the revolutionaries would have mobilised a much larger base in the working class to back a more explicitly socially radical programme than that on which the revolution would be fought. Such a postponement was barred on several points. Nobody knew that the war would last until 1918. Connlly knew that he was one (perhaps, for all he knew, the only one) of the Socialist International’s upholders of its 1907 Stuttgart Congress resolution that directed Socialists during a war to ‘intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist rule’. Moreover the said crisis was accelerating the revival of militancy among the Dublin workers, particularly the strategically important dockers employed by the Dublin Steampacket Company. Their strike inspired Connolly to present social and economic terms for an Irish revolution. The I.R.B.’s Military Committee responded, presenting Connolly with the ultimatum that it would rise with or without him.
The Rising made Connolly a bigger name than Larkin for the surviving I.T.G.W.U. leaders to use to attract recruits. By 1920-2, the union was bigger than it would be again for three decades. Simultaneously, the rebellion had magnified the existing negative qualities among union officials. Some were already hostile to the Citizen Army. The I.T.G.W.U.’s headquarters, Liberty Hall was destroyed, its General Secretary in the U.S.A., his replacement executed and, for a month, its General President, Thomas Foran interned with other activists. A subsequent General Secretary, Michael Mullen, would state that a probably inquorate meeting of the union Executive was held in the days after the insurgents’ surrender to deprive Connolly of his position and union membership. True or false, this reflected a real attitude and it was stronger in other unions less militant than the Transport Union.This meant that, even had Connolly survived, he would have had major problems continuing his strategy. His death left nobody capable of defending it against ordinary trade union practice as underpinned theoretically when the combined I.T.U.C. and Labour Party met in Sligo in August 1916.
The meeting was chaired by Thomas Johnson of the National Union of Shop Assistants. He was President of the Congress-Party Executive in which Connolly had been a first time ordinary member. Connolly had complained about his indecision when they were both in the Belfast Branch of the propagandist Independent Labour Party of Ireland, but they collaborated in moving the postponement of the 1915 Congress-Party Meeting to 1916, fearing, with good reason, that pro-war delegates would have a majority if it met as scheduled.
Their tactical agreement had obscured the strategic difference between them. Connolly was a revolutionary and a defeatist, seeking to execute the Stuttgart resolution and sabotage the United Kingdom war effort. Johnson was a reformist and a pacifist seeking peace without victory for either side and favouring, of the two, that of the United Kingdom and its allies because, as he said in his Sligo Presidential Address, ‘France is still a republic – more firmly established.’ (He did not mention Britain’s other major ally, Tsarist Russia) To Labour he offered a perspective to ‘create a strong party with a practical programme of social reconstruction, with democracy – political and social – as an ideal and a method. An intelligent advocacy of such a programme and its application by public bodies wherever possible will be the surest way of rallying the workers of Ulster to the banner of a united Ireland – free, democratic and self-governing.’
This formulation left room for mistakes. Firstly, Johnson’s ‘strong party’ was a strengthened Congress-Party, not even an independent labour body. This was particularly egregious in that the Irish workers made up less than half the working population; the balance was composed of small farmers for whom Johnson’s ‘practical programme’ of agricultural co-operation was acceptable only by example. Secondly, while the whole idea of draughting and presenting ‘a practical programme of social reconstruction’ was useful, its fulfilment was presented as strictly electoral; although Johnson defended the right of workers to strike, for him state power was to be achieved only through the ballot box ( reversing Connolly’s position). Thirdly, this was the greater defect in what was the developing revolutionary situation from 1916. Fourthly, in connection with this, there is no mention of the motor of that situation, the Irish national question; ‘the workers of Ulster’ is the nearest it gets. This was, perhaps, natural only a few months after the Rising, with many still in internment, but it reflects a deeper prejudice shown in the speech’ link of insurgents and British Army recruits as equally worthy of honour and attacking ‘the national habit of mind’ as the cause of war. Again, Connolly was abandoned.
Johnson’s listeners were happy to overlook his departures from the dead theorist. They continued to work determinedly fulfil Connolly’s directive in Johnson’s spirit. The industrial state was to be built till it smashed the shell of the political state presumably by mobilising its own citizens’ votes at the ballot box in alliance with the small farmer co-ops. No short cuts were possible. In April 1917, Connolly’s closest ally of his last years, William O’Brien was elected to a committee chaired by Count Plunkett to organise the political leadership of the reviving national revolutionary movement. O’Brien’s Labour comrades made it clear that he compromised his trade union position by this membership and he resigned from what was to be the organiser for the new Sinn Fein. The Citizen Army was frozen out of Liberty Hall. In 1918, with both Republican and Labour movements growing and having organised a general strike against conscription, O’Brien was proposed as anti-conscription candidate in the Cavan East bye-election, a nomination he refused leaving the seat to be won by the right wing Sinn Feiner, Arthur Griffith. Accordingly, in the subsequent general election, Labour’s small political clout meant it had to choose between accepting Sinn Fein’s terms tying it to membership of the prospective Dail Eireann or not to contest nationalist seats; it chose the latter. In the Anglo-Irish War after 1919, there were several effective work stoppages in support of Republican demands, but they were all initiated under pressure from the rank and file. Labour’s leaders proceeded according to the dictum ‘hasten slowly’; unfortunately, history had accelerated to overtake them.
That this was more than just avoiding the national issue is shown by their record in workplace disputes. Militancy in these was stimulated by the militancy shown in the strikes on the political front. The newly organised workers mobilised to gain what was owing them. Their leaders serviced their activism with reasonable efficiency, but the ITGWU President, Foran, expressed his view in his remark ‘Today we settle everything by negotiations’. Labour could not negotiate its way into state power, and its leaders would not seek it.
Still Sinn Fein sought to stop Labour doing so. In early 1918, the Home Rule M.P., Joseph Devlin, backed by the Freeman’s Journal, accused Eamon de Valera of having ordered ‘Labour Must Wait.’ This campaign got little support among Devlin’s colleagues and did not survive nationalist Ireland’s need to unite against conscription, but the smear lingered. Actually, Sinn Fein’s (and de Valera’s) approach to Labour was more subtle: to absorb or neutralise, but not to commit too far. The Home Rulers’ attack was prompted by de Valera’s assurance that, under the Republic (interpreted by the Home Rulers as only under the Republic), Labour would have its full rights. Sinn Fein stressed its dedication to the 1916 Declaration (including Connolly’s social aspirations) and to the utopian socialism of George Russell’s The National Being, involving the peaceful, agreed replacement of capitalism by co-operation. (The Theosophist Russell’s vision had more credibility by being on accord with a radical reading of the Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum.). Sinn Fein bargained with Labour over the 1918 general election. In exchange for promised international socialist support, it passed the first Dail’s ‘Democratic Programme’. De Valera made the Labour sympathiser Constance Markievicz Minister for Labour.
But what were Sinn Fein’s projected concrete social changes? The party declared these at its refounding convention in November 1917. It adopted a number of Labour-supported minimum demands; equal rights for women, a living wage (without mention of who would decide it), the control of food exports to prevent famine (a practical excuse for a series of arms raids and abandoned when they were completed) and the end of the Poor Law. The other motions passed were simply bourgeois nationalist, although with a strong stateist support. Later, in America, de Valera would continue this ambivalence, balancing a qualified defence of the Bolsheviks, in Chicago, with a denunciation, to the Irish-American mine bosses of Butte, Montana, of Larkin as having tried to help proselytise Catholic children in 1913. Meanwhile Eoin MacNeil used his economic ministries which he knew he could not administer as authority for pontifications on Connolly’s vision of Celtic socialism, presenting it as communal class collaboration.
By the time of the truce with Britain in July 1921, Sinn Fein was the sole Irish challenger for state power. Labour was now irrelevant and in the middle of a recession. So far from Russell’s vision of the bosses surrendering their businesses to their employees, they were mounting a counter-attack backed by the resources of the two states. Whether a more aggressivestrategy would have given it the advantage can never be known for sure. Certainly this would have required a leadership of greater consciousness than that accepted by Connolly or, before America, by Larkin. As it was Irish Labour did wait and has waited, as a class, ever since.