Connolly, the rise of Irish labour and Home Rule

Submitted by Matthew on 15 June, 2016 - 12:40 Author: Michael Johnson

By January 1908, Connolly finally had an organ of his own once again, when he founded The Harp as the newspaper of the Irish Socialist Federation (ISF) in the USA.

The ISF was inspired by Connolly’s work alongside Italian workers in the Il Proletario group, which prompted him to learn Italian and organise free speech protests against police harassment of the group’s meetings. Irish-Americans did not have their own national federation. Indeed, New York Mayor George B. McClellan had declared that “There are Russian Socialists and Jewish Socialists and German Socialists. But thank God there are no Irish Socialists!” Setting out to disprove this, the Irish Socialist Federation (ISF) aimed to educate Irish-American workers about socialism, promote knowledge of Irish working-class history and encourage solidarity with the Irish workers’ movement.

Connolly’s intention was not to separate Irish workers. Rather, he aimed to break Irish workers from the corrupt Irish Democratic Party politicians at Tammany Hall, to “broaden and develop the mental horizon of our countrymen… and prepare them to take their place in the revolutionary army of the American proletariat.” He declared: “To the capitalist organisations of Irish-America we will oppose a socialist organisation of Irish-America.”

This brought him into closer contact with socialists in Ireland, organised in the ISRP’s successor organisation, the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI). These renewed links, especially with William O’Brien, would pave the way for Connolly’s eventual return to Ireland in 1910. In May 1908, The Harp made an appearance at the National Convention of the Socialist Party of America, bringing it to the attention of the party’s activists and leaders.

On the strength of his journalism, Connolly was offered a speaking tour for the SPA in 1909. The tour was a success but Connolly’s attentions were increasingly turned to Ireland, writing to O’Brien in May 1909 that moving to America was “the greatest mistake of my life.” The SPI was small and had no newspaper of its own, so Connolly made plans to transfer The Harp to Dublin. Compared to when Connolly left in 1902, depressed and demoralised, conditions for socialist activism in Ireland by 1910 had greatly improved.

A major reason for this was the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) by the Liverpool-born socialist Jim Larkin. ITGWU The ITGWU combined the same militant spirit and industrial strategy favoured by Connolly, emphasising short, sharp and offensive strikes backed up by solidarity action. Connolly saw in it the potential of combining the existing unions into an all-Ireland workers’ union.

He wrote to O’Brien in May 1910: “Tell comrade Larkin that I believe his union to be the most promising sign in Ireland that if things were properly handed on those lines, the whole situation…might be revolutionised.” The ISF held a leaving banquet for Connolly and on 16 July he set sail for Ireland, arriving a week and a half later. While Connolly had been in America, Ireland had experienced profound changes. As well as the foundation of the ITGWU and the beginnings of militant trade unionism, the separatist tradition had re-organised itself around Griffith’s organisation, Sinn Féin.

Founded in 1905, Sinn Féin promoted its founder’s idea of a “dual monarchy” between Ireland and Britain, on the model of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. In 1907, the republican Dungannon Clubs, led by IRB man Bulmer Hobson, and a network of nationalist organisations Cumann na nGaedheal, merged into the new Sinn Féin. However Sinn Féin was floundering within a few years. It would not flourish until after the Easter Rising, in which its involvement was only indirect. In 1910 it was the Home Rule party which had the momentum, due to a brewing constitutional crisis in Britain.

After coming to power in 1906, the Liberals had continued to the Tory policy of attempting to “kill Home Rule with kindness”, establishing a National University and improving the terms on which tenants could purchase their land. However, in December 1909 the Liberals called an election. Expecting a close result, Redmond pushed for Home Rule. The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, promised him “a policy which, while explicitly safeguarding the supreme… authority of the Imperial Parliament, will set up in Ireland a system of self-government in regards to purely Irish affairs”, adding that “there is not, and there cannot be, any question of separation.”

Redmond, the inheritor of the newly-unified Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), was in any case not advocating separation. The political representative of the well-off farmers created by the Land Acts, and the penumbra of small capitalists and traders who serviced them, Redmond spoke for those who wanted to carve out their own niche within the British Empire, which he saw as “an instrument of civilisation and progress whose existence was not incompatible with freedom.” Redmond stood at the head of a network of rural bourgeois, urban property-owners, publicans and professionals, glued together by the sectarian Ancient Order of Hibernians, which saw itself as a bulwark against socialism and atheism.

Part of the motivation for Home Rule was to do away with the limited Liberal welfarism introduced by Asquith. A good patriot, Redmond opposed the extension of the Feeding of School Children Act to Ireland though the IPP voted for it for England. Yet, at the same time, the Home Rulers were nourished by the same Irish national myths and traditions which inspired their separatist rivals. While Redmond may have made his peace with imperialism, it was not at all the case that his followers fully agreed. Thus the fear amongst Ulster Unionists and the elements of the British establishment who opposed Home Rule, that self-government would acquire a logic and momentum of its own, leading to full independence.

In the election the Liberals were cut from 400 MPs to 275, while the Tories won 273 and Labour won 40. With their 82 MPs, the Irish nationalists held the balance of power. The Liberals intended to curtail the power of the House of Lords, who had rejected the party’s People’s Budget of tax rises to pay for old age pensions and other social measures, and called a second election in December 1910 which delivered a similar result. With nationalist support, the Liberals passed the Parliament Bill, stripping the Lords of its veto and allowing it merely to delay legislation for two years.

Home Rule now looked likely. Connolly’s attitude to Home Rule was straightforward. While denouncing the Irish nationalists as a “slimy capitalist organisation…fighting to maintain every kind of reaction and obscuranticism in our Irish cities”, and condemning them for refusing to extend National Insurance to Ireland, he thought the achievement of Home Rule would settle the constitutional question and usher in an era of class politics.

Regarding Home Rule and its Unionist opponents, Connolly wrote in the ILP’s newspaper Forward in March 1911 that both “the professional advocacy of it, and the professional opposition to it, is the greatest asset in the hands of reaction in Ireland, the never-failing decoy to lure the workers into the bogs of religious hatred and social stagnation.”

“Believing that the day is approaching”, the task for socialists was “to prepare for it by laying now the foundations of that socialist movement, whose duty it will be to guide and direct the efforts of labour in Ireland, to find and fashion a proper channel of expression and instrument of emancipation.” He wrote later that “as Socialists we are Home Rulers, but that on the day the Home Rule Government goes in to power, the Socialist movement in Ireland will go into opposition.”

At this time, Connolly was a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI), which remained a small group, organised on a loose basis, issuing socialist propaganda of a very general kind. Retreating from Connolly’s earlier revolutionary formulations, it proclaimed its methods to be “political organisation at the Ballot Box to secure the election of representatives of socialist principles… and thus to gradually transfer the political power of the state into the hands of those who will use it to further and extend the principle of common or public ownership.”

In 1910, it did not even take a position on what would become the defining question of the period — the movement for Irish self-determination. This would come back to haunt the party in the turbulent years to follow. However, in parallel to building the SPI, Connolly, writing in the Harp just months before he returned to Ireland, laid out the perspective of forming a wider Irish Labour Party, based on trade unions and labour organisation, within which socialists would be active.

The basis for this, Connolly argued, was that while “the knowledge of theoretical socialism is but meagrely distributed amongst the workers, that feeling or knowledge which the socialists call class-consciousness is deep-seated, wide-spread and potent in its influence.”

He recalled with anger the fact that workers’ political representation had taken a step forward in the local government elections back in 1899, only for the elected representatives to betray their class independence and side with the Home Rulers. Now, however, he proposed “that it is time to make an effort to retrieve the situation, and once more to raise the banner of a militant Irish labour movement upon the political field.” Optimistically, Connolly wrote, there is a “strong socialist movement, representing some of the best intellects in Ireland, an independent socialist feeling and education on socialist thought in every city of industrial activity in Ireland...”

How realistic were Connolly’s expectations of the forward march of labour and the prospects for its position in a future Home Rule parliament? With the passing of the Parliament Act, limiting the powers of the House of Lords, gone was the reactionary bulwark which had scuppered the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893.

On 11 April 1912 Asquith presented the Third Home Rule Bill providing limited self-government to Ireland. unionists But with constitutional means of blocking Home Rule neutered, opposition took the form of a naked show of force by the Tory establishment and the Ulster Unionists. The resistance of Ulster Unionists to their incorporation into an all-Ireland parliament was more powerful than the nationalists, Connolly or the Liberals had imagined, and utterly transformed the political situation in Britain and Ireland.

Ever since the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) in 1905, bringing together local Ulster Clubs, MPs, Orange lodges and skilled shipyard workers, the Unionists had been quietly consolidating a powerful cross-class movement against Irish self-government. The Unionist leader was Edward Carson, a Dublin barrister from a wealthy professional Anglican background. Though a southern Unionist, Carson recognised the power of Ulster resistance to Home Rule.

This brought him into a close alliance with the more pugnacious James Craig, a Boer War veteran and son of a Presbyterian whiskey millionaire from County Down. Plans were made for a Provisional Government with the support and funding of Ulster’s Protestant bourgeoisie. This rebellious talk was matched from the very citadel of the Tory establishment, when Andrew Bonar Law, with strong family links to Ulster, became the Conservative Party leader in November.

At the Duke of Marlborough’s residence at Blenheim, Bonar Law denounced the British government as a “revolutionary committee” and announced that his party “shall use any means to deprive them of the power they have usurped… I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go in which I will not be ready to support them.”

Though nationalist Ireland was initially slow to realise the depth of the Unionist challenge to Home Rule, the stage was set for a major confrontation. The Unionists’ methods, in “putting back the gun in Irish politics”, would see the situation in Ireland transformed utterly.

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