The Origins of Irish Labour

Part 2: The struggles of the early 1900's

John Sinclair, Militant Irish Monthly, June 1976, No. 44

The 1898 Local Government elections were Labour's first big step forward politically. Workers now had the vote in local elections. Labour Electoral associations sprang up all over Ireland. Most were established by trades councils and local trade unions, and some were just the result of initiatives of local groups of workers. In Belfast the trades council set up and controlled a local Labour Party.

Labour candidates did very well. In rural areas also the 'land and labour' candidates received a good poll. Seven Labour councillors were elected in Belfast. A 'Labour' council was elected in Limerick.

Connolly wrote, 'this action taken upon the Local Government Act by the trade unionists of Dublin is perhaps the most important step yet undertaken by the organised workers in IrelandůMoreover, in pressing forward even the mildest of reforms, it will be found that the representatives of property in the corporation will, irrespective of property, line up solidly against reform and our friends will imagine that they will secure the co-operation of the master class in safeguarding the interests of labour will be sadly deceived.

Unfortunately the labour representatives did not follow through their success. As a result Labour representation was totally annihilated inside four years, except in Belfast. Labour councillors got themselves caught up in the manoeuvres, jobbery and corruption of the other parties. Their working class supporters were disgusted. In Belfast there were surrenders to unionism. Only a small nucleus held on to socialist principles. There was no national Labour Party with a coherent national policy and strategy to draw together the various labour groups. Each area operated independently of the other. Socialist groups because of their smallness, inexperience, recent foundation and their general habit to look in on themselves rather than out on the general working class movement and had little influence.

Very few of the labour representatives had any clear grasp of the essentials of independent working class representation. Once elected they were no match for the representatives of the conservative groups, who fought hard in the interests of the wealthy. The Labour men were bribed with al the perks and privileges of office. They were wined, dined and flattered. Several quickly gave in, and stopped acting as an independent group.


This slowed down the development of a national Labour Party. But in the same way as the present coalition with Fine Gael does not mean the end of the Irish Labour Party, it was but a temporary set back. In 1899 Labour was in its political infancy. An infant often falls when trying to walk - that does not mean that it will not run fast when it grows up!

A small handful of trade unionists still actively supported the demand for a united Labour Party. But those at the Irish Trades Union Congress who called for a Labour Party did not receive large support.

Connolly's Irish Socialist Republican Party was already in decline. In 1903 depressed by their continual internal squabbling - much of it purely personal - Connolly emigrated to America. With his departure, the Irish socialist movement lost the man who alone at eh time possessed the theoretical and organisational ability to carry it forward. The following years in the history of Irish socialism were years of further splits and fusions among tiny groups. As today these groups spend more time fighting amongst themselves than fighting for workers interests. It was not until 1909 that the rapid radicalisation of the Labour movement got these tiny groups by the scruff of the neck and made them think of turning towards the workers' movement.

In Britain unskilled workers were joining the unions in large numbers. Britain's Labour Party was bounding forward with each election. In 1906, 29 Labour MP's were elected in Britain.

Belfast in 1907 saw the beginning of the big movement of he Irish workers. Jim Larkin arrived in the city as organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers. He was a man with exceptional organising ability, able to channel the workers' anger along political lines. Dockers hours were long. They often had to pay heavy 'fines' from their inadequate pay and the work was very heavy. The dockworkers first came out on strike. They were followed by the workers in the Gallagher Tobacco factory, who were mostly women. In July, the police went on strike.

Violence was the answer given to the workers. Troops were brought into the city. Two workers were shot dead on the streets, many more were injured. The police strike leaders were sacked and the rank and file scattered to remote areas.

But attempts to break the strike by sectarianism failed. On July 11th there was a demonstration by the workers against sectarianism. A non-sectarian band was set up from musicians who had been members of Protestant and Catholic bands.


The British Labour leaders came over and made a statement over the heads of the strikers. But the strike had demonstrated the power of the labour movement. It had also showed that when workers tried simply to organise trade unions - a 'legal' right - they were set upon by the police, army and judges.

Sectarianism was broken in 1907. But again because there was no national Labour Party to draw together the various strands in the working class movement and to provide a political alternative to the old sectarian parties the roots of sectarianism were not dug out. William Walker was the independent Labour Party leader in Belfast and had fought four parliamentary elections for it, but his programme tended more and more to be a mixture of religious bigotry and minor reforms. This could not rally the workers of the city.

The Belfast strike of 1907 began the movement of the unskilled workers. Listing the strikes of the following years is like listing the major towns in Ireland. The struggle was by its very nature political. The workers had no choice; when they opposed the bosses, police, troops judges and local politicians lined up against them. The Unionists opposed the workers. So too did all varieties of nationalists, from the Home Rule Party to Sinn Fein (except for a handful of republicans). Sinn Fein , a new organisation founded by Arthur Griffiths, denounced the workers actions as a 'monstrous state of affairs' and launched vicious personal attacks on Larkin and (despite their obsessive hostility for all things English) were prepared to back any British trade union leader who wanted to break a strike in Ireland.

The conservative leaders of the British National Union of Dock Labourers were terrified by what was happening in Ireland. Larkin was suspended from his job as organiser. In December 1908 the Irish Transport and General Worker's Union was founded.

John Sinclair.

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