In 1913 Dublin workers waged a heroic battle against their employers, the church and the police. Despite being defeated, argues Bernie McAdam, the lockout lives on as the most inspirational act of working class resistance in Irish history.
Dublin at the turn of the 20th Century was probably the most impoverished city in Europe bar Naples. Chronic unemployment, squalor and poor sanitation gave Dublin one of the highest infant death rates in Europe. The1911 Census showed that 26,000 families, a third of the population, lived in tenements, with 20,000 crammed into single rooms.
Yet Dublin was the capital city of a country forming part of the United Kingdom, which led the world in industrial development. Dublin’s plight represented the untrammelled rule of rapacious capitalists and British imperialism.
The city played an inferior role to Belfast and North-East Ireland’s manufacturing prowess, where Protestant privilege was deliberately nurtured as a compliant base for Britain’s rule in Ireland. So Dublin missed out and struggled to sustain employment within its commercial and transport services.
Out of the cauldron of rising nationalist and class anger in Ireland, a young workers’ movement was about to flex its muscles. It was soon to have a leader in Jim Larkin, ably assisted by James Connolly. “Larkinism” became a catchphrase for militancy. A socialist and militant trade unionist, Larkin had organised strikes in Belfast in 1907, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. He was now to cut his teeth in Dublin.
As an organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) Larkin’s tactics of escalating strikes soon brought him into conflict with the conservative NUDL secretary James Sexton. Despite three successful strikes in Dublin in 1908, Larkin continued to meet union executive hostility, and defiance eventually led to his suspension.
Larkin immediately set about organising the breakaway Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). The first aim was to recruit from all the major ports in Ireland, a mission accomplished except for Belfast. By the end of 1911 the ITGWU had recruited thousands of unskilled workers, increasing its membership to 18,000.
Throughout 1911 a strike wave had rolled across Ireland as in Britain. Again in 1913 the year opened with over 30 strikes in Dublin alone. The ITGWU could now boast a membership of 30,000. Larkinism had succeeded in unionising nearly all before it with the exception of the Guinness brewery and Dublin United Tramway Company.
The lock out begins
William Murphy was Ireland’s leading capitalist, owner of the Irish Independent newspaper and the Dublin United Tramway Company. He was also involved in the Home Rule movement. Most employers were cautious, fearful even of his determination to root out Larkinism. Many had already tasted the ITGWU’s tactics ranging from picketing and refusing to touch “tainted goods” to sympathy strikes.
Murphy, with the British Liberal government’s support, was not prepared to accept ITGWU membership in his companies. Victory required the state’s protection of scab labour, which in turn provided the necessary confidence for other employers to fall in behind Murphy.
On the 19 August 1913 Murphy locked out union members from the Tramway Company. Larkin immediately brought out the rest of the tram workers. The state quickly showed its hand by arresting Larkin and the entire ITGWU leadership for seditious libel and conspiracy. He was released but defiantly broke his bail conditions to attend a demonstration.
The police were intent on driving all shows of union protest off the streets and major street fighting between pickets and police broke out, resulting in two pickets being murdered by police and over 200 badly injured. Another two were to die later. Larkin was rearrested. By the end of September 400 other bosses had swung behind Murphy; around 25,000 workers were locked out.
Irish Citizen Army
By November the ITGWU – with Larkin arrested now under the leadership of James Connolly – organised the Irish Citizen Army. This was launched on Larkin’s release, which had been secured by a massively popular campaign against the backdrop of police brutality and the bosses’ refusal to negotiate. This union militia was to play a major part in the Easter Rising of 1916 against British rule. For now its role was defending workers from the armed police and scabs.
The lockout came at a time when Ireland was promised Home Rule, a limited form of autonomy within the Empire. The formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force was designed to stop this. In response the nationalist Irish Volunteers were formed with the support of the Irish Home Rule Party and the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood. The former detested Larkinism, while the latter refused to take sides. The ITGWU and ICA were not even invited to the launch of the Irish Volunteers.
All the forces of middle class Catholic Ireland, with their limited Home Rule agenda, supported Murphy. The Catholic Church whipped up a hysterical campaign against workers’ families, sending their kids over to trade unionist supporters in Britain for fear of “abandoning their faith”.
Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein attacked Larkin as an imported English evil. The nationalist and republican groups saw only the need for an all-class movement to secure Home Rule or independence. James Connolly saw through this when he declared, “Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”
The lockout continued until mid-January 1914. Despite sympathetic strikes by rank and file rail workers in Britain, plus Larkin’s popular ‘Fiery Cross Crusade’ speaking tour, the TUC refused to deliver any solidarity action apart from financial aid.
This pressure from below undoubtedly lay behind the unprecedented call by the TUC for an emergency conference to discuss the lockout. Unfortunately the TUC leaders made sure this was not a rank and file delegate conference but one stuffed with full-time officials and one which delivered no action but plenty of criticism of Larkin’s conduct.
The lack of official solidarity action was crucial in undermining the Dublin workers. Their defeat was assured after this TUC betrayal, backed by a spineless Labour Party. As defeat loomed, the ITGWU ordered a return to work, with many now blacklisted or at best getting their jobs back on humiliating terms.
The limits of syndicalism
Larkin and Connolly were both shaped by the syndicalist movement that swept across France, USA, Britain and Ireland before the First World War. Syndicalism in its various guises stressed the role of economic action in abolishing capitalism. “One Big Union” was the mechanism that would usher in socialism. Militant syndicalism at its most positive gave us the sympathy strike, the picket line and occupation right up to the general strike and workers’ defence guards.
There was a negative side though. In Britain widespread sympathy with Dublin was not given a political direction by the many militants challenging the union bureaucrats. A rank and file movement that could deliver unofficial action failed to materialise. British syndicalism cut itself off from the struggles of all the oppressed at a time when women’s rights and Irish independence were key political battles. When imperialist war was declared syndicalism was unable to mount any serious resistance.
In Ireland Larkin and Connolly were the official leadership of the workers. Their militancy was unrivalled and their republicanism later ensured no support for imperialist war. The ITGWU paper, the Irish Worker, was a crucial weapon in exposing the bosses and building union as a prelude to the socialist commonwealth. Larkin and Connolly were not opposed to parties and had set up the Labour Party, but building the party played second fiddle to the building the union.
Their idea of the party was as an electoral back up to the ITGWU, not a party for political action. The union would guide the party, which through elections would help neutralise the state. Unknown to Connolly at the time, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were building a different kind of party that was preparing the working class for power by smashing the state.
Relying on the union was in effect relying on the spontaneous development of the working class movement rather than, as Lenin had warned, recognising the need to bring trade unionism under revolutionary leadership. This required a professional cadre party fighting for a revolutionary action programme around the burning political questions of the day.
In Ireland the absence of a Leninist party was particularly felt after the execution of Connolly by the British in 1916. Connolly had bequeathed a magnificent revolutionary heroism but no revolutionary party. After the Rising, the Labour Party degenerated even further and the cause of labour had to wait for a united Ireland, which of course never came.
Even in the pre-war period Connolly and Larkin accommodated to the sense of “inevitability” regarding Home Rule, conceding the right of the nationalist bosses and middle class to lead the struggle against British imperialism. This illusion – and Larkin and Connolly’s failure to link the national and class questions through a programme for permanent revolution – impeded their Labour Party from leading a revolutionary struggle for national independence both before and during the lockout.
Victory for Dublin may have seemed inconceivable without TUC support but a mobilisation of workers and small farmers around the questions of workers’ rights, national independence and the land could have turned the tide. A revolutionary party could have taken the initiative in turning spontaneous anger of the masses into a conscious struggle for power.
The most positive lesson of 1913 is the magnificent solidarity and militancy shown by Dublin workers. What would we all give today for a Larkin or a Connolly that could inspire workers to stop the unrelenting austerity attacks rather than the present crop of do-nothing bureaucrats? Their vision of a workers’ republic remains unfulfilled but their fighting spirit is still a beacon for all workers.
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