Irish Labour history
Part 1: The rise of the General Unions

John Sinclair, Militant Irish Monthly, No. 42, April 1976

The Irish Labour Party was set up by the decision of the Irish Trades Union Congress at its 1912 conference in Clonmel. Congress represented 70,000 organised workers. James Connolly proposed the motion to set up the Labour Party. Jim Larkin was the main supporting speaker. The Labour Party grew out of the trade union movement to represent working people. Independent Labour representation was what was demanded by the original motion.

Until 1930 the Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party was one body. The political and industrial wings of the Labour movement Connolly in his speech said 'We are not going to tack ourselves on to some political party of the masters in order that they might swell their fortunes and help the ambitions of their employers.'

The Labour Party today has tacked itself on to a conservative party. It has not taken an independent stand representing the working people who built it up in the past and from whose ranks it draws its support today.

It is no accident that Connolly and Larkin were the two main speakers for the motion which led to the formation of the Party. Both had played leading roles in the Labour movement throughout the country in the years leading up to 1912. They had organised the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, a union of labourers and other unskilled workers. These workers had never before been organised properly. In Ireland they were the worst off section of society. The economy was chronically underdeveloped. Much of industry had declined in the 19th century. It could not stand up to the competition which mostly came from the superior industry of Britain. Capital was all the time being exported from the country, because return on it was higher abroad, and also because this was the policy of the British ruling class for strategic reasons.


Economic pressure was forcing small farmers and farm labourers off the land. With the partial exception of Belfast there was little industry in the cities and towns to provide them with jobs. Many emigrated, others lived from hand to mouth. The numbers who worked casually were huge. In Dublin in 1901 the male labour force was 40,000. 23,000 of these were labourers and 7,000 were carriers of some sort or another. Most of these 30,000 only got casual work. There was no dole or sickness benefits, and no old age pensions until 1908.

Living conditions for workers were inhuman. In the period 1908-10 there was 20% unemployment in Dublin. The death rate in the city was higher even than in Calcutta. 20,000 families each lived in one tenement room,. Most families in Dublin earned less than 1 per week. Yet according to a government survey off the time, the average family needed to spend 22 shillings and 2 pence [about 1.11] on food per week if they wanted to have a minimum healthy diet.

In both Dublin and Belfast tuberculosis, then a fatal disease, was widespread. Industrial accidents were also very common, especially in the engineering and linen industries of Belfast. In Larne workers in the aluminium plant worked a 7-day, 84-hour week.

Out of these conditions grew the need for an independent Labour Party to fight for the interests of the workers. Irish trade unions, the basis on which such a Party would be built, have a long history going back to the 18th century.

The Custom House site in Dublin was a closed shop in the 1780s. Craft unions especially had been involved in several strikes. The Irish Trades Union Congress was founded in 1894. A number of towns already had their trades Councils.

A socialist motion was raised at the second meeting of the TUC in 1895. James McCarron, the delegate from the Derry branch of the Tailors' Union proposed: 'That it is the opinion of this Congress that the ultimate solution of the Labour problem is to be found in the nationalisation of land, also the means of production, distribution and exchange.' Richard Worthey from Belfast seconded. The motion was defeated 57 - 25. Most of the delegates there represented the older craft unions. In an effort to maintain wages, they could restrict entry to their trades. In this way, if they went on strike, other men could not easily be pulled in off the streets to do their jobs. Unlike unskilled workers who could not use this tactic to protect their interests, the craft workers tended to appear 'respectable.'

Unskilled Workers

It was 1906 before an unskilled worker was elected to the Congress Executive. As late as 1899 50% of the membership were in the city of Belfast mostly skilled engineering, shipbuilding or linen workers.

The first leaders of Congress claimed they were 'non-political'. In fact, in the main, they supported the Irish Party. This party, a conservative party, had its Nationalist 'Labour' MPs. On every important issue their allegiance was to the middle class nationalists, not to Labour. Connolly described the Irish Party as 'representing the capitalist class, the publicans, and the gombeen men or money lenders of rural Ireland, as well as the lowest class of slum landlords in the cities.' Jim Larkin described a local Party boss as a 'creature who would have contaminated Sodom and Gomorrah had he lived in those days.'

At the time of the first Irish TUC there were no Labour public representatives anyhwere in the country. There were some tiny socialist groups in the cities. but these saw their job as just putting forward socialist ideas in the abstract, not playing a part in and trying to influence the organised working class movement. Belfast was somewhat of an exception. there socialists were influential on the Trades Council and had been calling for independent political action by Labour, the only way then, as now, to heal sectarian division. the British Independent Labour Party had a fairly strong branch there also.

For about 50 years there had always been some form of socialist organisation in Dublin. James Connolly and seven others set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. Kier Hardie, the British Independent Labour Party leader and MP, sent over 50 to help set up a paper, 'The Workers' Republic. But the Party's links with the trade union movement were always slight. Members who were workers tended to see their socialism and their trade unionism as being separate. The situation was the same with the other socialist groups.

Connolly's Party never had more than a 100 members. Most outside of Dublin driifted away without becoming much more than people who briefly held a Party membership card.

John Sinclair

[This series will be continued in further articles]
This series of articles on Labour history from our archives
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap