Labour and Ireland: Workers unity - the real solution

The election of a Labour Government in Britain has raised enormous expectations, not least by workers in Northern Ireland who are looking for a way out of the impasse they have faced for nearly a century. Yet the Labour leadership remain tied to a "bi-partisan" approach that has solved nothing in the past, and looks set to present more of the same for the future. In a short series of articles, Cain O'Mahoney examines labour's role in Northern Ireland and the lessons that must be learnt.

One of the greatest tragedies of this century was the premature rising in Dublin in 1916. Heroic though the Easter Rebellion was, it lead to the execution of the giant of Irish socialism, James Connolly, and shattered the last remnants of the Irish Citizens Army, a potentially revolutionary force.

This beheading of the Irish labour movement came just two years before the momentous events of 1918-1920 which, with a correct workers leadership, could have changed the course of history in Ireland, Britain, and possibly the world.

James Connolly, a Scottish trade unionist blacklisted after standing as a Labour candidate in Edinburgh, was summoned to Ireland to work alongside Jim Larkin in bringing trade unionism to the lowest paid and most exploited section of the working class in the British Isles.

Larkin had already sent shockwaves through the ruling class with a successful struggle in 1907 in Belfast. Since the United Irishmen revolt of the 18th century, British Imperialism had used sectarianism to divide Northern Ireland workers, using the promise of "ascendancy" for the Protestants to buy their loyalty.

But the rise of trade unionism and socialist ideas was breaking this centuries' old grip. The grinding poverty of capitalism was driving Protestant and Catholic workers into each others' arms. As Connolly explained in his work 'Labour In Irish History': "... the presence of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, (and) earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social democracy."

The British ruling class had a taste of this in1907. Jim Larkin led a campaign to unionise the dockers and transport workers, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers throughout Belfast in the fight for union rights. The ruling class were shaken after their age old method of 'playing the Orange card' to divide the workers totally failed. The Unionist press had denounced Larkin as a "Catholic and a socialist" and attempted to whip up emotions around the July 12 th parades.

Larkin responded by organising a united labour movement demonstration on the eve of July 12th, cutting the ground from beneath the sectarians and stamping the trade unions' authority on the city. He even won the support of the Independent Orange Order - a working class, 'pro-labour' breakaway from the official Orange Order - who backed the demonstration. Indeed, scabs had been brought in to break the strike, from Liverpool; that these class traitors came from Britain and not the 'Catholic enemy' in the South was not lost on Protestant workers.

The bosses were further weakened when the clamour for trade union rights spread to the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast. The leader of the movement demanding trade union rights for the police was threatened with a charge of mutiny. The rank and file of the RUC responded with a mass meeting at the Musgrave Street Barracks threatening immediate strike action, and the authorities backed down.

As the bosses saw the trappings of state power begin to unravel and their sectarian grip on Protestant workers collapse, they were only saved by the leaders of the British TUC. They rushed over to the North and imposed a settlement on the dockers, and the movement subsided.

The height of Connolly and Larkin's influence came in 1913, and the momentous events of the Dublin Lockout. There had been several minor but successful strikes led by their union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Larkin then led the ITGNW in a campaign to organise the Dublin United Tramway Company, one of the major employers in the city refusing recognition.

Its owner, Murphy, one of the leading bosses in the city, called together the Southern employers in August and urged them to join him in a city-wide Lock Out. Over 400 employers responded to the attempt to smash the trade unions, and they were backed by the British state. The Police were unleashed to violently break up all mass meetings and pickets, the most infamous episode being Bloody Sundaywhich left hundreds of trade unionists badly injured. In all two pickets were killed by police, while a young girl was shot dead by an armed scab.

In the momentous battle over 100,000 trade unionists and their families backed Connolly and Larkin until they were literally starved back to work on Murphy's Brief six months later. The struggle was lost because of the failure, once again, of the British TUC leadership to give active support. They confined the British labour movement to fund raising activities only, quickly moving in to quell sympathy strikes that broke out in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, fearing a general strike spreading throughout the whole movement which in turn would have challenged their comfortable positions.

The defeat of the Southern Irish workers in the Dublin Lockout alongside the onslaught of the First World War left the Irish labour movement battered, bruised and demoralised. By 1916 membership and funds had dwindled to dangerously low levels. Larkin was dispatched to the United States to raise new funds for the impoverished Irish Transport and General Workers Union—he was subsequently imprisoned and held in Sing Sing prison until 1922, in the purge of the American labour movement that followed the Russian Revolution.

Connolly meanwhile became increasingly isolated as reaction set in following the defeat of 1913, while his anger grew at the great betrayal of the labour movement leaders throughout Europe as they passively fell in line behind their respective national states in readiness for the mass slaughter of the First World War.

Connolly was in the tradition of the 'Zimmerwald Conference' labour leaders—which included Lenin, Luxembourg and Liebknicht—that condemned the great betrayal of the European reformist leaders.

Connolly had raged against the British TUC: "Time was when the unanimous voice of that Congress declared that the working class had no enemy except the capitalist class—that of its own coming at the head of the list!"

The Easter Rising, from Connolly's standpoint, was a last desperate act after fears grew that widescale conscription would be introduced in Ireland; the Irish working class, already starved and exploited, were now to provide the mass cannon fodder for the killing fields of France.

Connolly took the small remaining cadre in the Irish Citizens Amy— formed in 1913 to defend picket lines from Police attack - into the ill-fated rebellion to fight alongside the Nationalists of the Irish Volunteers. The ill timed revolt received little support and was swiftly crushed by the British Army.

The failure of the rebellion was not only a disaster in that it prematurely removed a potential revolutionary leadership from the Irish working class for the decisive battles yet to come. It also played into the hands of labour's enemies in the North who would forever more link socialism to Irish bourgeois nationalism, and scare Protestant workers away from revolutionary ideas.

This of course was a total smear on the true ideas of James Connolly. All his writings and works pointed towards workers' unity and the need for the socialist transformation of society. Indeed, he had no illusions about the dangers of joining the Nationalists for an armed rebellion. A week before the uprising, he told his followers in the ICA: "The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well."

Connolly was reviled internationally for his actions by labour leaders, including Plekhanov. However, Lenin and Trotsky leapt to his defence. Lenin in particular made the point that although it was "...a misfortune that the Irish rose prematurely", he pointed out to other so-called 'revolutionaries' that " is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful revolutionary movements that the masses gain experiences, acquire knowledge, gather strength and get to know their real leaders..."

Trotsky developed this point in his essay 'Lessons of the Events in Dublin.' Highlighting the case of Sir Roger Casement, the former British Colonial Service official who attempted to smuggle in German rifles for the rebellion, he stated: "The experiment of an Irish Rebellion in which Casement represented, with undoubted personal courage, the outworn hopes and methods of the past, is over and done with. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already it has brought its class anger against militarism and imperialism into this rising, under an out-of-date flag."

Unfortunately the removal of Connolly, Larkin and the ICA cadre—who could have played a key role in the events of 1918-1920—meant the workers continued to take up the struggle under an 'out-of-date flag'.

The struggle for Irish independence was accompanied by spontaneous movements of the workers inspired by the Russian Revolution. There were widescale land seizures in County Clare. An effective Soviet was formed in Limerick, with workers even producing their own money - 'Labour Notes' - and imposing price controls. Members of the ITGWU took over the Knocklong Creamery under the slogan: "We make cream, not profits". In Leitrim, miners took control of the Argina coalfield.

In addition, the struggle for national liberation was taking an increasingly class based nature. With the exception of Belfast, throughout Ireland there was a General Strike against conscription in 1918. In 1920, there was a further three day General Strike against the imprisonment of Republican prisoners, while trade unionists in the docks and railways refused to handle ammunition and supplies for the occupying British Army.

But this was not matched by a labour leadership of the calibre of Connolly and Larkin. Instead the labour leadership allowed themselves to become an auxiliary of the nationalists based around Sinn Fein, which represented the rising bourgeois and petit-bourgeois who would supplant British imperialism in the new Free State.

The nationalist leader De Valera adopted left wing language to ensure the support of the workers, even declaring "If I were asked what statement of Irish policy was most in accord with my views as to what human beings should struggle for, I would stand side by side with James Connolly." These were empty phrases however. In the crucial 1918 general election De Valera demanded the Labour Party—formed in 1912 through the intervention of Connolly—stand aside to allow Sinn Fein a free run, under the slogan: "Labour must wait". The Labour leaders dutifully obliged, paving the way for the formation of a capitalist Free State that could never win support from the Protestant workers in the North.

Even so, the spontaneous actions by the workers during this period struck terror into the heart of British ruling class. Around the globe, capitalism had been shaken by the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary struggles in Germany and Central Europe. Now Britain in 1919 faced an uprising in Ireland and growing class conflicts on the British mainland too, from the Red Clydeside revolt in Scotland to the mutiny by British soldiers awaiting demobilisation in France. Had Connolly "kept his powder dry" for three or four years, and instigated an uprising along socialist lines during this explosive period, the impact can be imagined.

It was these fears that drove British imperialism to enact its partition of Ireland. There were of course immediate material considerations for the ruling class. They wanted to retain the profitable heavy industries of the North and maintain the Northern ports to protect Britain's western flank from its European rivals. But a prime motivation was that Partition would act as a brake on the growing revolutionary awareness of workers both North and South.

The Orange bosses and the British ruling class had thought that the events in the North in 1914—where Edward Carson and the Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force and threatened open revolt against Home Rule—had re-enforced sectarianism, destroying the gains made by the workers in 1907.

But the spectre of working class unity returned to haunt the ruling class in 1919. Belfast was not unaffected by the class movements emanating form the South and across Europe; and not least from Red Clydeside where the battle was on for the 44 hour week.

A virtual General Strike rapidly spread throughout Belfast, with Shipyard workers—led by a Catholic—fighting for a 44 hour week, and engineers fighting for better pay. The workers won a partial victory, with the working week being reduced to 47 hours in the shipyards, and pay in the maritime engineering plants being increased by five shillings.

The importance of the 1919 Belfast strike however, is that it awoke the political consciousness of many Protestant workers. From the industrial struggle they moved onto the political plane. Belfast Labour and the ILP fielded candidates for the 1920 municipal elections - many of them strike leaders from the 1919 dispute—winning 13 seats. This success was all the more significant as they defeated so-called 'Unionist Labour' candidates.

Following the events of 1907, the ruling class had always feared the Protestant workers developing their own independent political consciousness and therefore attempted to create a safe 'Labour' party for Protestant workers that would not threaten the Unionist order. 'Unionist Labour' was created in 1914—its class composition can be judged by its three founding members; Edward Carson, the Unionist leader and architect of Partition; JM Andrews, the boss of a large linen company; and William Grant, the sole trade union activist but who was also a prominent member of the Orange Order. Yet in the 1919 elections, Unionist Labour won less than half the seats won by the real, class based 'Belfast Labour'.

Faced with a potential social revolution in the South, and the rising voice of independent labour in the North, the bosses' class responded with a terrifying new assault. They instigated vicious pogroms in 1920, that paved the way for Partition. The Unionist press whipped up fears about Home Rule and called on Protestants to 'expel' not only Catholics but also "unreliable Protestants and Socialists" from the workplace.

The Belfast Protestant Association, an extreme right wing group, led the affray into the Shipyards and other major factories and mills, attacking Catholics and trade unionists. It is worth remembering that the pogroms did not emanate from inside the workplace, but were instigated from the outside. Fr. John Hassan, a Priest who chronicled the events, described the attacks: "Men armed with sledge hammers and other weapons swooped down on the Catholic workers in the shipyards ... The gates were smashed down with the sledges, the vests and shirts of those at work were torn open to see were the men wearing Catholic emblems, and then woe betide the man who was..."

By the end of this maelstrom, over 9,000 workers had been driven from their workplace, mainly Catholics but also over 2,000 Protestants, most of them trade union activists who attempted to defend their brothers.

The trade unions attempted to fight back, but the expulsions were compounded by an ill-thought out tactic by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. What had been needed was a thorough, well organised campaign of pickets, canvassing in working class areas and demonstrations to win back those workers momentarily caught up in the sectarian madness of the pogroms, building up to a clear strike call coupled to socialist demands for a Workers Republic that would create a new equal society for all, cutting across the fears stirred up over Home Rule.

Instead the ASE reacted by drawing up a blacklist of all companies that had allowed the pogroms to take place and called on ASE members to "not accept employment" from them. This confused call was a disaster. Only 600 members responded - they were promptly sacked, and the 2,000 ASE members who stayed in were expelled from the union. The trade unions had successfully been driven from the shipyards.

The aftermath of the 1920s pogrom was effectively the end of trade unionism in the North for the immediate period. Connolly had always warned that a Partition of Ireland would lead to a "Carnival of Reaction". This grim perspective was borne out.

The new Northern Ireland state became a seething cauldron of sectarianism, riots and pogroms. Wages were slashed in the shipyards and the marine engineering plants by up to 22 shillings a week. Joiners and carpenters lost 12 shillings a week, while the dockers had their meagre wages cut by three shillings. By 1925 the unemployment rate had shot up to 24 percent. This was the reward for the 'loyalty' of the Belfast workers.

Partition strengthened reaction on both sides of the new border however. Following the pogroms and Partition, alongside Labour's subservience to Sinn Fein in the South, there was a genuine attempt to re-establish a united labour movement in 1924, by the National Council of Labour Colleges. Although a project was established in Belfast, the plan failed because of opposition in Dublin. The NCLC's General Secretary JP Millar said the project was defeated by "strong nationalist feelings" in the South, adding that if Dublin had agreed, the plan would have "made a substantial contribution towards creating unity between trade unionists in the North and trade unionists in the South."

Labour and Ireland: Irish Labour's missed opportunities

The partition of Ireland, following the Government Of Ireland Act in 1920, gave strength to the reactionary 'theory' that has always been perpetuated by pro-Unionist elements amongst the Northern labour movement that workers' interests were better served by maintaining the link with British capitalism.

Its architect was William Walker, a carpentry trade union activist, who stood as a Labour candidate at the turn of the century. Having rejected revolutionary socialism, he could only envisage a 'united Ireland' that tied Northern workers to an impoverished, divided capitalist state, and therefore argued that workers had more to gain by forcing reforms from the wealthier British capitalism. Indeed, this is the logical conclusion of reformism in the Northern Ireland context.

Ever since, the pro-Unionist elements have argued that there were 'two traditions' in Ireland; the ideas of the giant of Irish socialism, James Connolly—that is revolutionary socialism—was 'for the Catholics' while the Walker Tradition was in the best interests of the Protestant worker.

But capitalism in Northern Ireland is incapable of providing decent jobs, homes and wages for all. At the same time it uses sectarianism to keep the working class divided, fearful that a united labour force would use its industrial muscle to force reforms which would cut into the bosses' profits and develop socialist demands that would challenge the very existence of capitalism. The danger for the working class is that if it capitulates to these capitalist inspired divisions, it merely reinforces sectarianism as the workers retreat into their respective sectarian camps to defend their own meagre interests. Indeed, if socialists fail to tackle the national question, and do not raise the demand for a Socialist United Ireland and a Socialist Federation of the British Isles within a Socialist Federation of Europe, they become mere apologists for either pro-imperialists Unionism or petit-bourgious Southern nationalism and reinforce the sectarian wedge between Catholic and Protestant workers. This conundrum would dog the NILP throughout its existence—and for that matter still plagues the British Labour Party to this day.

The fate of Walker gives a graphic illustration of this. In 1906 he came within a few hundred votes of winning a North Belfast by-election. The Unionists who had his ear subsequently argued that if only he had been more resolute in his Unionism, he could win those extra Protestant votes needed to tip the balance. He stood for the same seat in the 1907 General Election—this time the extreme loyalist Belfast Protestant Association demanded he answer a series of questions to demonstrate his 'Loyalty'. This he did, making remarks offensive to Catholics—in response to this heightening of sectarian tensions, the workers returned to an inevitable sectarian head count and Walker was heavily defeated.

Ironically, in the same year Jim Larkin demonstrated how workers unity could be achieved through the class based demands he raised in the 1907 Belfast strike wave, where Protestant and catholic workers fought side by side for trade union recognition and better conditions. Walker on the other hand betrayed this opportunity to transfer workers' industrial solidarity onto the political plane. His inability to understand the processes taking place alongside his lack of faith in the prospect of workers' unity soon put him on the slippery slope to reaction.


Thus by 1912 he had deserted the labour movement and accepted a government position under Lloyd George. This has proved to be the well-trodden path taken by subsequent pro-Unionist labour leaders, until the final disintegration of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1970s.

It was a route taken by Walker's successor, Henry Midgley. Despite dominating the NILP with his Unionist views between the two world wars, his frustration at the growing impotency of the NILP—precisely because of the pro-Unionist policies on which it stood—led him to split from the NILP to form the 'Commonwealth Labour Party' in 1944. When this project failed, he later became a Stormont cabinet minister and a staunch supporter of the Orange Order.

Tied to this Unionist straitjacket, the reformist leaders of the NILP failed to adopt policies that could break it out of the sectarian cul-de-sac, that could have rekindled the spirit of working class unity.

One such opportunity was the movement against unemployment and poverty in 1932. By the 1930s, Northern Ireland workers faced intolerable conditions. Unemployment rose to 28%—Harland & Wolff, which had employed 20,000 in the 1920s was now down to a workforce of only 2,000. This was the reward for the 'loyalty' of the Protestant workers who had backed the Orange bosses drive for Partition.

Spontaneous protests broke out against 'Out of Door Relief,' slave labour schemes introduced supposedly to alleviate the hardship of unemployment. This was a degrading penalty of the Poor Law provision - for a painfully low supplement of , for example, 12 shillings a week for a married couple with one child, the unemployed were forced to complete two and a half days 'task work' as penance. 2,000 unemployed sent to work on the roads went on strike; they were joined by students from schools across the religious divide, and by Protestant and Catholic tenants who held a rent strike.

As the Orange bosses unleashed the police to baton the workers, rioting broke out in both the Catholic Falls Road, and the Protestant Shankhlll, which sent shockwaves through the Orange establishment.

The pressure put on the NILP gave a glimpse of what might have been achieved if they had taken a root and branch reappraisal of the policies and put forward a socialist programme. Albeit a token gesture to appease the rank and file, the NILP fought the 1933 Stormont elections on a 'workers unity' ticket, and doubled their representation from one seat to two.

This 'half way house' stance in the long term however proved to be the worst of both worlds. Still tied to Unionism, the enthusiasm for the NILP waned and the movement sparked by the events of 1932 was left directionless. At the same time the nominal advance by the NILP had provoked the Orange bosses into a frenzy. The following year they instigated actions that provoked a return to sectarianism—after the events of 1932, all demonstrations and public marches were prohibited, but the ban was lifted in time for the 1933 July 12th marching season which resulted in widespread rioting, many deaths and the British Army being called onto the streets to 'restore order'. The sectarian wedge returned.

The heightened political consciousness of Protestant workers who were looking for a lead during this period can be measured by the fact that even the staunchly nationalist IRA managed to form a cell on the Protestant Shankill Road by 1934! Had the leaders of the NILP put forward clear class based policies linked to socialist demands, the grip of loyalism could have been broken.

But the failure of the 1932 movement concretised the split in the Irish labour movement, consolidating the base of both Unionists and nationalist elements within the labour movement on both sides of the border.


In the North, the NILP nailed its colours to the Unionist mast, and began a downward spiral towards irrelevance in the eyes of Northern Ireland workers that would not be reversed until a brief period in the 1960s. Its failure to outline the socialist alternative meant that workers were left with the two stark choices presented by capitalism: 'more of the same' with the continuation of the Union, or unification with De Valera's impoverished Free State. Despite the appalling deprivation workers faced in the Northern Ireland statelet, Protestant workers looked on the South with horror.

For years it had been wracked by a bitter civil war. Now it was dominated by a reactionary Catholic 'theocracy' that stood guard over De Valera's backward, impoverished and isolationist state. Unification on a capitalist basis offered absolutely nothing to Protestant workers, indeed the perceived 'reverse discrimination' would only leave them worse off. In addition, De Valera was increasingly ambivalent towards the rising fascist threat in Europe, while pro-Nazi elements had taken control of the IRA. The Orange bosses in the North played on the workers' instinctive hatred of the fascists, in particular accusing the South of being the "open back door" to Britain should war break out with Nazi Germany.

Rather than raise a class based alternative, explaining how they could alleviate poverty for all and unite the country on a socialist basis, the NILP leaders lay prostrate before this Unionist mantra. The 1939 NILP conference confirmed that they supported Northern Ireland staying within the British Commonwealth. Far from winning them more votes, workers just saw them as "little Sir Echoes" to the Unionists, and voted for the real thing—in 1940 all NILP candidates were heavily defeated.

There was a swing to the NILP in the 1945 General Election. But this was not because of their pandering to Unionism (which had still not been overt enough for Midgley!), but because of their association with the progressive policies of the British Labour Party, and reflected the huge swing to the left in society; even the Northern Ireland Communist Party picked up support.

This lesson however was lost on the NILP 'unionists'. In February 1949 the Stormont Government called an election which they made into a 'border referendum'. The NILP once again clamoured to demonstrate its Unionism - and did not win one seat.

Rather than draw the conclusion that the British Labour Party won huge support in 1945 because of its policies of widescale nationalisation of the service industries, transport and coal alongside its sweeping welfare reforms, the February 1949 conference of the NILP instead reaffirmed its fervour to "maintain unbroken the connection between Great Britain and Northern Ireland", arguing that it had not been "unequivocal enough" in its support for the Union with Britain.

This pandering to the agenda set by the Unionists was a further disaster. While throughout the rest of Britain Labour stormed ahead, the NILP in the 1949 May council elections were once again annihilated. Their representation shrunk from eight seats to only one.

Their pro-Unionism had two damaging effects. Firstly, it merely reinforced the illusions of Protestant workers in the Unionist Party. As the author of 'The Rise of Irish Trade Unions (I 729-1970)', Andrew Boyd, recorded: "The Walker-Midgley philosophy has dominated the NILP since 1949. It has turned that unfortunate organisation into something little better than a shadow of the Ulster Unionists."

Secondly it drove a final sectarian wedge into the Northern Ireland labour movement. As a consequence of the 1949 conference, the NILP split in two, with pro-Nationalist elements forming 'Eire Labour'. Ironically—while the NILP was decimated—Eire Labour returned seven councillors but only, not surprisingly, from Catholic areas. It immediately became perceived as a 'nationalist party', while the NILP was confirmed as an Orange party.

Partition did not just reinforce reaction in the North however. A similar process was taking place in the South. The nationalists had always mistakenly urged trade unionists to split away from the 'British' trade union movement. In 1907 - when Larkin was successfully uniting Protestants and Catholic workers in Belfast—Sinn Fein urged the trade unions to split away from the Irish TUC, a sectarian move which fortunately failed. Connolly had raged against such a move, arguing in his pamphlet 'Yellow Unions in Ireland' that such a nationalist split off would be "... the first to betray the cause of labour."

But Partition and the subsequent reaction strengthened their hand, and by 1939 Sinn Fein eventually succeeded in persuading 18 trade unions to split from the ITUC and form the Advisory Council of Irish Trade Unions.

This was formalised in 1944 with the formation of the Congress of Irish Unions—the Irish working class was equally split, with the CIU representing 190,000 workers, and the ITUC representing 211,000. Similar to 1907, the Nationalists pushed through these demands at a time when the British labour movement was moving sharply to the left, with widescale unofficial strikes in the wartime industries and pressurising the British Labour Party to adopt a radical programme, which propelled it into power a year later.

This move left the ITUC severely weakened in the North. While Sinn Fein denounced the ITUC as a "tool of the British", the Stormont government took advantage of the Nationalist instigated split and refused to recognise what was left of the ITUC.

They had always wanted an 'Ulster TUC', an emasculated trade union version of the tame NILP. While they beat their chest in defence of 'Union with Britain', they wanted 'union' with the powerful British ruling class only and not with a labour movement which was successfully forcing concessions and reforms. They felt a 'loyal' trade union organisation cut off from British and Southern Irish workers could be kept safely in their pocket.


Stormont received backing from its allies in the NILP leadership, who argued the split in the movement was now an 'accomplished fact' and that the only way forward was for a 'federal' solution for trade unionists. The NILP leader David Bleakly—steeped in the 'Walker/Midgley tradition'— proclaimed in 1954: "It seems reasonable to suggest that the only solution that is likely to endure is one that recognises the essential realities of the situation ... a federal solution may be the most suitable."

Calls for such 'federal solutions' in various forms have been raised ever since by sections and individuals in the labour movement over the years who have become exasperated by sectarianism. It has never been—and never will be—a solution to the 'Troubles.' Workers' solidarity knows no boundaries—those who attempt to confine it to national borders merely reinforce acceptance of the limitations of the capitalist nation state and assist the bosses in setting worker against worker as the capitalist class play off one 'national interest' against another. in the context of Northern Ireland, to split the movement along North/South, Catholic/Protestant lines does not provide a detour around sectarianism—it merely reinforces it.

An 'Ulster TUC' would have created a Northern version of the 'yellow unions' feared by Connolly. Indeed, the experience in the South of those trade unions which split away from the ITUC was not that it gave them new found strength; rather that, severely weakened, they were trampled over as the Southern bosses stampeded towards the creation of a new capitalist nation state. Just as the Orange bosses after Partition 'rewarded' the Protestant workers with mass unemployment, wage cuts and repression, so the Green bosses of the South repaid the Southern trade unions with disempowerment, cutbacks and low wages.

Fortunately the working class in both the North and South understood these lessons and rejected such calls for federalism. They pursued their instinctive desire for unity against the bosses class, of whatever colour, and pressurised their leaders for re-amalgamation.

Against all the odds, the CIU and the ITUC merged in 1959, to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which included a Northern Ireland Committee, uniting all workers, whether in Southern Irish or British based trade unions.

Despite decades of sectarianism, despite Partition, despite virulent opposition from Stormont, Southern nationalists and despite the pressures of their own so-called 'leaders', unity won through. Stormont still refused for five years to recognise the ICTU but eventually had to accept the inevitable.

As the Belfast Telegraph (24 July 1964) commented: "The desire for unity and solidarity among trade unionists throughout Ireland remained strong regardless of political differences ... this fact enabled the Northern Ireland Committee (of the ICTU) to enjoy wide support even without official recognition, while proposals for a separate Ulster TUC or a Northern Ireland Committee of the British TUC have attracted little interest."

Events from 1907 through to the formation of the ICTU in the 1950s illustrates that sectarianism is not the 'natural state of consciousness' of Irish workers, but rather is a barrier imposed by the intervention of British imperialism bolstered by the reactionary nationalism of the Southern Irish capitalist class; the instinctive aspiration for Irish workers, both North and South, is for unity against the class enemy. Unfortunately this class consciousness was never matched by political leadership. It was a failure that the workers would pay for dearly in the explosive events of 1969.

Labour and Ireland: Labour and the troubles

After 1945, British imperialism had a different agenda for Northern Ireland. Ireland had been partitioned in 1920 to keep hold of the profitable industries of the North, as well as the important military bases that protected Britain's western flanks. More importantly however, Partition served to act as a break on the growing social revolution that accompanied the struggle for national liberation in Ireland, which had included land and factory seizures by the workers.

None of these factors existed after 1945. The new Cold War meant Britain's "enemies" were firmly in the East. Britain meanwhile settled down to a period of protracted boom, while the former Free state under De Valera was stabilised as a safe capitalist satellite ripe for economic exploitation by Britain, as of old. This was consolidated by the linking of the London and Dublin Stock Exchanges in 1963 and the signing of the Fair Trade Agreement between the two states in 1964. By 1968 the Irish Republic was the fifth largest importer of British goods.

British and Irish capitalism envisaged a smooth, gradual progress towards the establishment of a united Ireland, in which Britain would be the dominant economic partner. The bosses wished for a protracted period of stability in which to maximise profits. Indeed, when the divided trade unions united to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1959 (see last issue), while this provoked fierce opposition from the Stormont government, the trade unions did receive one important voice of support... from the British Association of Manufacturers!

Pressure from British capitalism to quietly resolve the historic legacy of Partition was typified by the historic talks between the Irish Taosiach Lemus and the Leader of the Stormont government, O'Neill. in 1965.

This belief that Ireland would quietly resolve its differences explains the appalling inaction by successive Labour governments. The election victories of 1945 and 1964 had presented opportunities to resolve the 'Irish Question'. Yet the Labour governments ignored the timebomb ticking under their feet. The NILP were allowed a seat on Labour's NEC and any 'Irish Questions' that arose were forwarded to that delegate and quietly forgotten.

But this comfortable acquiescence was illusionary. Beneath the surface enormous pressures were building up, as anger grew at the reactionary legacy left behind by Partition. The Orange bosses had been given free reign to create an undemocratic regime, en par with the reactionary southern states of the USA.

Through disenfranchisement - which debarred 300,000 workers, mainly but not exclusively Catholics - and blatant gerrymandering, the Unionists ensured their 'majorities' and guaranteed control of the northern Ireland state machine. The 'ascendancy' of Protestant rule was given concrete form.


The 1961 Census illustrates the appalling discriminatory nature of the regime:

  • In the elections to Northern Ireland's ruling Stormont government, although there was adult suffrage, there was also a second vote for the statelet's Universities (13,763 votes), and a second vote for businesses (12,663 votes). as Catholics were effectively banned from both higher education and commerce, this gave the Unionists an extra 26,426 votes before the polls even opened. thus Antrim, whose population included 66,929 Catholics, saw all seven seats go to the Unionists!
  • In local government the discrimination was even more blatant. Not only was there a second vote for businesses (an extra 6467 votes) and then a third vote for company premises (a further 3,894 votes), there was no adult suffrage - the vote went only to householders whose property was worth £10 or over. This effectively debarred most Catholics whose impoverished conditions, widespread unemployment or low paid jobs kept them tied to rented accommodation. It also debarred many low paid Protestants, reflecting the Orange bosses historic fear of a return to independent Labour parties, that Protestant workers had established following the Belfast General Strike of 1919.
  • All this was compounded by blatant gerrymandering of constituency borders. Derry provided the most stark example of this: in 1961 the city had a population of 30,049 Catholics and 17,325 Protestants. When the discriminatory electoral rules were applied, Catholics were left with 14,325 votes and the Protestants with 9,235. Even though the Catholics still maintained a majority, this was further undermined by gerrymandering of the ward boundaries - giving the Unionists 12 seats and the Catholics only 8!

Control of Stormont and local government structures meant Catholics were severely discriminated against in the allocation of public housing. There was also widescale discrimination in the allocation of jobs - the infamous joke of the time was that when Catholic workers were asked the million dollar question, during job interviews, about their religion, they would reply that they were "an atheist" - often provoking the response: "yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

However, by the late 1960s, capitalism - and Stalinism - internationally was undergoing convulsions. Huge forces were on the move around the world. Throughout the West, students championed the national liberation struggle in Vietnam; workers fought the tanks of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia, while the European ruling class were rocked by the General Strike in France in 1968.

Civil rights

And the world's gaze fell on the Southern states of the USA, where black workers were fighting for civil rights. This had an enormous effect on Northern Ireland workers. The media presented the US civil rights movement as some far away aberration. Yet equal levels of discrimination existed in Britain's very own backyard.

Movements began in Northern Ireland to demand equality. Significantly, workers first moved through their traditional organisations - in this case the Northern Ireland Labour Party, despite all its betrayals and pro-Unionist sectarianism of the past.

For most of the post war period, the NILP had continued its pro-Unionist stance, even as late as 1964 voting with extreme Loyalists not to allow local authority playgrounds to open on Sundays, in order to "protect the Sabbath!"

But by the mid 1960s the NILP leadership began to face mounting pressure from below from two fronts; from the workers organised in the 23 trade unions that remained affiliated to the NILP, and from the growing band of young activists, based around the increasingly politicised student campuses and campaigns to reform the housing allocation laws.

Thus by 1965 the NILP issued its first call for equal rights. The following year, in September 1966, the NILP issued a joint memorandum with the ICTU, calling directly for one person, one vote and an end to gerrymandering.

These public stances had an enormous effect. As the battle for equal rights hotted up, so workers in their hundreds turned towards their traditional political organisations and the NILP underwent a brief renaissance in the late 1960s.

For example, in the North West region of the Northern Ireland statelet, there had only been one NILP branch in 1968. By 1969 there were three. There was also a huge response to the establishment of Labour Party Young Socialist branches - the founding meeting of Strabane Young Socialists in 1969 was attended by 170 local youth; in a town of only 13,000. The greatest success was in Derry where the Labour Party - which distanced itself from the NILP because of the Unionism of the leadership, but did not link up with those 'labour' organisations that had gone down the road of nationalism, such as Gerry Fitt's Republican Labour Party - recruited hundreds of youth to the Derry Young Socialists, who were later to be the backbone of the defence of the Bogside.

Heightened political consciousness does not know national borders - there was an equal radicalisation of the Southern Irish Labour Party. The Donegal area in the north west had only one branch of the Labour Party - by 1969 it had 10.

But the Northern Ireland statelet was a seething cauldron waiting to explode. The protests and marches by the civil rights movement in 1969 were met by vicious attacks from the RUC and their auxiliaries, the B specials who were little better than Loyalist paramilitaries in state uniform.

Yet the NILP failed to give a lead to the civil rights movement, content instead to take a back seat leaving the movement open to the middle class Catholic leaders whose short sighted policies of equal opportunities alone, tinged with bourgeois nationalist sympathies merely antagonised the mass of Protestants.

Protestant workers had always feared unification with the ramshackle Southern Irish economy; unification on a capitalist basis would merely mean a redivision of inequality - and the Protestants feared they would become the new losers. The same was feared of the implementation of 'equal rights' in the Northern Ireland statelet - capitalism in whatever form, whether union with Britain or a united Ireland, cannot provide jobs, homes and decent conditions for all.

The failure of the NILP leadership to take the lead with a socialist programme that could alleviate the inadequacies of capitalism for all, left Protestant workers prey to the black sectarian propaganda of the Loyalist extremists.

As the civil rights leader and former MP Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) later admitted: "We realised that, however nicely we put it, more jobs for Catholics meant less jobs for Protestants. That was a realistic fear of theirs."


Inevitably the sectarian monster created by British Imperialism spiralled out of control, reaching an explosive crescendo in August 1969. Civil rights marches were brutally suppressed and a virtual pogrom was unleashed by the RUC and B Specials in Derry, as they made repeated efforts to invade the Catholic Bogside, being beaten back by a hastily formed Defence Committee.

Catholic workers in Belfast rioted and protested, hoping to take the pressure off Derry as the sectarian maelstrom took hold there, with 500 families being burnt out of their homes in one night alone following rampages by Loyalist gangs.

Workers - both Catholic and Protestant - bravely fought to defend their homes from sectarian attack with, in Derry, the Young Socialists taking the lead manning the barricades and running the 'Free Derry' radio station. As Liam de Paor in his book 'Divided Ulster' recorded: "The brunt of the street fighting has been borne not by any traditional nationalist element, but by the Young Socialists who have shown great courage."

Throughout the blazing Province, ordinary workers instinctively took a class position and strove to unite Catholic and Protestant workers, to stop the slide into sectarian civil war.


In Belfast in particular, ordinary workers formed defence organisations to guard their area. Non-sectarian 'Peace Patrols' sprung up in Ardoyne, Ballymurphy, Springhill, Turf Lodge, New Barnsley, Springmartin, Highfield and Clonard. A leaflet circulated by workers in the Dock ward of Belfast was typical of the stance taken by many workers, proclaiming: "All the Protestant and Catholic neighbours are still on the most friendly terms and if any outsiders attempt to come in and disrupt this harmony, they will be ordered out of the area."

A crucial stand was taken by workers at Harland and Wolff; all eyes were on the shipyard given its infamous role in the 1920 pogrom. On August 14th, stewards called a mass meeting - out of a total workforce of 9,000, 8,000 took part and voted overwhelmingly not to join in the sectarian madness. Protestant stewards then visited Catholic workers who had stayed away, ensuring them of their safety at work and urging them to return.

But the rank and file of the labour movement could not hold the breach alone. An intervention from the labour leadership was vital. Had the heroism of the workers striving against the odds for workers' unity been matched by their supposed 'leaders' then the situation would have been transformed.

Tragically it was not forthcoming. The trade union leaders in Northern Ireland, Britain and and Southern Ireland - as well as the leaders of the NILP, the British Labour government and the Southern Irish Labour Party had become increasingly detached from the struggles on the shop floor during the previous 20 years of capitalist boom.

They contented themselves with occasionally bargaining for a few partial reforms in the bosses' boardrooms or in the corridors of power in Whitehall. Faced with a real life and death crisis they were incapable of formulating class based demands that could unite Protestant and Catholic workers. They had become defenders of the rotten system, rather than tribunes for socialist change that could ensure peace and equality.

Thus they confined themselves to abstract calls for calm, and then joined the clamour - initiated ironically by the nationalist 'leaders' of the civil rights movement - to send in British troops. It was a cowardly act for which Northern Ireland would pay for the next three decades.

Labour and Ireland: Labour government sends in troops

The decision by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969 reflected that government's abandonment of any semblance of socialist policies. It was a squandered opportunity that tied the Labour leadership to the blind alley of 'bipartisanship' for the next three decades.

The explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969 horrified the British ruling class. The statelet tottered on the brink of all out civil war. There were furious battles on the streets of Derry. Belfast was ablaze as sectarian mobs burnt down workers' homes while nearly 5,000 Catholics fled to makeshift refugee camps on the southern side of the Border.

The ruling class feared the conflict would spill into British cities - such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool - with their large Irish populations. More ominously, that such a sectarian maelstrom had been allowed to develop was prompting stern retorts from Britain's major trading partners, in particular the USA with its influential Irish lobby hinting at economic reprisals.

There was also growing unease in Whitehall at the small but growing development of the conflict taking on all the attributes of a social revolution: in Derry the Northern Ireland state machine - and British rule - had been expelled from the 'No Go' areas of the Bogside. The workers were policing and organising welfare services themselves, while the Derry Young Socialists controlled the local radio station, Free Derry, and directed the fighting against the RUC and B-Specials from the street barricades. The situation was out of the ruling classes' control - and that made them nervous.

The British Army was sent in as a 'temporary' measure to regain control for the British state. That the 1964-70 Labour government should work at the behest of the interests of the ruling class should come as no surprise. On every other front, from cutting back the welfare state to attacking workers' rights, they had followed the capitalist line. As Karl Marx had always warned, those workers' representatives who took office thinking they could reform capitalism rather than transform society, merely became the "executive committee of the ruling class."

It would be wrong however to think that the idea to dispatch the army was the sole preserve of Labour's right wing. The self-appointed champions of the Civil Rights movement, from John Hume to Bernadette Devlin, were screaming down the telephone to the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan to send in the troops.

Their shrill voices were joined by those from throughout the labour movement, from the left reformists to the ultra-left.

Tribune, then a major voice of the Labour left, demanded on August 8th 1969: " much of the present violence is it (the Labour Government) going to watch before it asserts its authority and accepts its responsibility to protect the lives and effects of law-abiding people in this part of the UK? It would take a corps of security officers along with a division of armoured infantry to ensure peace in the present ominous situation."

After the troops went in, Tribune added on August 22nd 1969: "General Freeland has only 6,000 troops in Ireland: they must be heavily reinforced."

This reliance on the state machine of British imperialism - which created the situation in the first place - was not restricted to the left reformists. The ultra left shared these illusions. Socialist Worker, in its reports on the deployment of British troops declared on August 21st 1969: "Because the troops do not have the same ingrained hatreds of the RUC and B Specials, they will not behave with the same viciousness..." and that "The deployment of British troops in Ulster provides some sort of security against lawlessness of the RUC and B Specials." The demand to withdraw the troops was conspicuous by its absence.

Even the IRA on 18th August 1969 issued a statement calling for the deployment of troops - not British ones of course; the IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding demanded that the Irish Army "invade" the six counties and rush to the aid of the Catholic communities - which would have been no better recipe for all-out war in the province.

It was the Marxists alone - along with Derry Labour Party - who understood the dangers of relying on the British state machine to defend Northern Ireland workers. As they stated at the time: "The call for the entry of the British Army will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil Rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interests of Ulster big business."

Derry Labour Party, in their Barricades Bulletin, forewarned: "The troops cannot stay on guard duty forever. When they come into the area they will be coming to re-establish the Government's control and pave the way for the RUC."

The call by the Marxists was taken to the 1969 Labour Party conference in October where a resolution was moved and it was argued there that " would be a mistake to think they (the British Army) were sent there solely to defend the Catholic population... We have got to back up our comrades in Northern Ireland, we have got to demand, as they do, the withdrawal of British troops. British troops have never acted in the interests of the working class in any country."

Of course, the demand to withdraw the troops was not raised in isolation. To do so would have appeared madness to the Catholic workers at the time serving soldiers cups of tea, relieved at a temporary respite at least from the continuous onslaught by the RUC and loyalist terror gangs. Marxism linked their demand to calls for the formation of a workers' defence force, based on the trade unions, to defend working class areas from attack from any quarter. They also raised socialist demands around which Catholic and Protestant workers could unite.

Unfortunately the call by the Marxists fell on deaf ears. The Labour government simply attempted to contain the situation, viewing it as a temporary aberration, although the worst of the discriminatory measures against the Catholics (see the previous article in Socialist Appeal Issue 54) were reformed. But the Northern Ireland statelet remained intact and the reigns of repression were set in place ready to be taken up by the Tories following Labour's election defeat in 1970.

The 1970 General Election should have presented an opportunity for Labour to go on the offensive with a socialist programme, including a socialist solution for Northern Ireland. Instead, the Labour leadership retreated behind its programme of counter reforms offering only further attacks on workers' rights, as outlined in their 'In Place Of Strife' policy. Standing on their dismal record they duly lost to Ted Heath and his gang of "yesterday's men."

The opportunity was squandered too by the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). They received a tremendous 100,000 votes, reflecting the shift to the left in Northern Irish society following the tumultuous events of 1969. Even as late as 1971, workers were still looking to the NILP for a lead, giving them 40% of the vote in a by-election.

But this support was betrayed. The NILP remained glued to pro-Unionist policies, fighting the election under the slogan of "Full British Rights, Full British Standards!" This hardly rallied those Catholics to their banner who had been suffering "full British standards" in their most reactionary form for decades.

The NILP also put forward the idea of the formation of a "Community Government", with the right wing Unionist leader Brian Faulkener as the suggested Prime Minister of such a government! Indeed, NILP leader David Bleakley - in keeping with the old 'Walker/Midgley' tradition - put his own ideas into action when the workers 'failed' him and became Stormont's Minister for Community Relations under Faulkner's subsequent administration, tying the NILP forever to the Unionists and finally heralding its demise and disappearance from Northern Irish politics.

Alongside the NILP, left leaning Nationalists also pushed up their support. The vaguely socialist 'Peoples Democracy' gained 27% of the vote, while Bernadette Devlin standing as a 'Unity' candidate in a by-election gained the votes of 1,500 Protestant workers.

The shift to the left did not stop at the border. The was also a huge growth in the Irish Labour Party, following the events in the North. In the North West of the Irish state, there had only been one ILP branch - by 1969 there were 10. In 1969, in a general election, the ILP stood on its most radical programme and gained 17% of the vote, one of its best results ever.

Yet despite the workers both North and South, Catholic and Protestant, turning to the traditional organisations looking for a lead as the crisis heightened, their aspirations were thwarted by the inaction of the labour leaders, and their reliance on British capitalism to resolve the crisis. The labour leaders merely paved the way for Tory reaction.

The Heath government of 1970 unleashed a new wave of repression, squashing any final illusions that the British Army would act in the interests of workers. Overnight, at the direction of the British ruling class - and backed by the closet approval of the Southern capitalist class - the army became as brutal as the RUC and the B-Specials.

Their opening gambit was the 'Rape of the Falls'. A curfew was imposed on the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast, effectively imprisoning 30,000 residents while the army carried out a brutal house to house search, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, with 244 arrests.

This was followed by Internment in 1971. By the following year nearly 1,000 had been detained without trial or charge, with many being tortured. Then came Operation Motorman, with tanks being used to smash their way into the former 'No Go' areas.

These vicious assaults culminated with Bloody Sunday, where the Parachute Regiment turned their guns on a 3,000 strong Civil Rights march in January 1972, leaving 14 dead. Despite the pathetic claims by this elite regiment that they were under attack, most of the dead were shot in the back.

Driven to a frenzy by this onslaught - and because of the vacuum left by the inaction of the Labour leaders - Catholic workers flocked to join the Provisional IRA in droves.

The Provos had split from the Official IRA with the backing - in finance, guns and training by the Southern state's secret service - of sections of the Southern Irish ruling class, based around Charles Haughey. Irish big business and feared that the left leaning Official IRA could take the lead in the mass discontent which had followed the 1969 crisis, leading to a social revolution at home. Part of the deal with the Provos was that they also kept their attacks to the North, ensuring the safety of the Southern capitalists' property and profits.

The Provos' main thrust was the 'military' campaign - a campaign of individual terrorism that would simply drive the British Army, and presumably one million Protestants also, from Northern Ireland. The wave of bombings and assassinations were met tit for tat by the Loyalist thugs - by the end of 1972, Northern Ireland was in the depth of sectarianism, with 467 mainly innocent workers murdered and thousands more maimed and injured.

Yet even during these days of darkness, rank and file trade unionists gave a glimpse of what could have been achieved if the Labour and trade union leaders had raised their heads above the parapet and given even just an ounce of leadership.

A one day strike in Derry against Internment was joined by 8,000 workers. 30,000 families took part in rent and rate strikes. But without a class based lead, and with the labour leaders rallying to their respective capitalist states, the movement was isolated to the Catholic community.

The labour movement had a second chance with the explosion of anger which followed Bloody Sunday. 70,000 protested in Newry and the three day general strike swept through most of the west of Northern Ireland.

This time however, given the enormity of the events, Protestant workers began to join the struggle. There was significant Protestant participation in the strikes in Derry at the Dupont plant and the Post Office. Staff and students at the mainly Protestant Colraine University joined the strike wave while 400 students attended a debate on the question of a "Workers' Republic", between a Unionist MP and Ted Grant. In London meanwhile, many workers joined their Irish workmates in protest strikes across the city's building sites.

Yet once again the momentum was lost. The demonstration in Dublin against Bloody Sunday perhaps typified the consequences of the labour leadership's failure to act. 60,000 workers turned out to demonstrate their anger. Left leaderless with no direction given by either the Irish Labour Party or the trade union leaders, the workers in their frustration turned on the British Embassy and burnt it to the ground.

Similarly in the North, the Labour and trade union leaders sat on their hands giving only minimal criticisms of the worst excesses of military repression - they merely supported the call for an inquiry into Bloody Sunday by Lord Widgery (later dubbed Lord Whitewash), or demanded direct rule from Westminster, as though that would make a ha'penny of difference. As they retreated further into a bipartisan agreement with the Tories, so Northern Ireland slid deeper and deeper into the mire of sectarian reaction.

Hopes were raised with the Labour election victory of 1974. But Labour merely took its turn in the repressor's chair - and then reaped the consequences.