Irish trade unionism and the end of Civil War politics?

By Sean Byers, delivered at the TULF meeting a political strategy for the trade union movement.

In December 2015, as the Right2Water campaign continued to confound its opponents with mass demonstrations attracting upwards of 100,000 people, former Taoiseach John Bruton made this revealing statement to the Irish media:

FG and FF have complemented each other through Irish history. In Ireland we have had consensus about major long-term policies largely because we haven’t had a sharp left/right or ideological divide. We have had differences, but they are differences about other things, not economics, and that has served the country very well…

It would not be good for the long term development of the country if we were to go towards the unproductive left/right politics that they have in countries like France and Britain. It has not served those countries well.

Conceding openly what has been apparent for some decades, that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are two cheeks of the same arse, Bruton’s statement can be read as a call for the Civil War parties to close ranks in the face of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary challenges to the established social order.

And close ranks they did. Where the establishment parties could once rely on the unquestioning support of the majority, winning 97 percent of the vote as recently as 1982 and as much as 81.7 percent in 2007, they now struggle to muster 50 percent between them. Having lost the election, Fine Gael made a sweetheart deal with Fianna Fáil that enabled Ireland’s austerity bloc to assume control of government and the opposition, extending its ninety-five year period of unbroken rule. The political establishment has been wounded, therefore, but not fatally so.

There are historical as well as more obvious contemporary reasons why the Irish Labour Party is regarded as part of the establishment. When the ITUC National Executive decided to establish a political arm over one hundred years ago, it stated that: ‘In any parliament to be elected in Ireland Labour must be represented as a separate and independent entity, having no connection with any other party.’ This directive could not be clearer, and yet the reverse has been the case for the greater part of the Party’s existence.

The Easter Rising created a political vacuum, ushering in the War of Independence and its attendant social struggles. The revolutionary period demonstrated most clearly that labour would not wait for the rebirth of Ireland to assert its demands. This was a period which witnessed an escalation in the number and intensity of industrial disputes, hundreds of soviets declared across the island and three general strikes in as many years. Famously in Limerick in 1919, a workers’ committee took over the running of the city in protest against martial law, coordinating everything from food distribution to the printing of money.  In Belfast the same year, shipyard and engineering workers led a general strike for the forty-hour week, assuming control of the city’s power supply, transport and trade. For three weeks, the city had taken on many of the characteristics of a soviet, and the sight of 100,000 people marching on May Day demonstrated that the north-east of the island was not immune to the revolutionary wave sweeping across Europe.

Nor were these forms of agitation limited to urban centres. Cattle drives and land seizures spread across the country, inspired by the desire of small farmers, tenants and workers for land distribution. In turn, the ranks of the trade union movement were swollen with an influx of agricultural labourers.

This rich history of radicalism and the possibilities is denied to lay trade union members and working-class communities by an economic and political elite whose power resides on the myth that there is no such thing as class or class struggle Ireland. Awareness and understanding of this history is essential to the education of our current generation of trade union and community activists, so that it is imprinted in our collective consciousness going forward.

If the 1919 Democratic Programme of the First Dáil was significant in formalising some of labour’s demands and seeing a party with 73 seats adopt the programme of a party with none, there is little doubt that organised labour failed to assert itself politically when Irish workers were most susceptible to radical ideas. Absent Connolly and Larkin’s influence, the Labour Party under the conservative leadership of Tom Johnson and William O’Brien missed the opportunity to encourage the class and political development of its members. This lack of ambition, coupled with the fear and reality of a state clampdown on trade unionists and sectarian conflict in Belfast, occasioned a retreat of the Labour Party to the extent that by 1922 it had given legitimacy to the Treaty settlement by becoming the official opposition.

When the bloody counter-revolution came, Labour lacked the necessary political strength to defend, never mind advance, its interests. Consequently, the counter-revolution gave birth to two reactionary states that underwrote the power of the propertied classes whilst restricting the political space available to the working-class movement. In the partitioned six counties, we saw the creation of a sectarian statelet where political elites continued to safeguard their economic interests by fostering sectarian division among the working class. The twenty-six counties, meanwhile, developed into gombeen theocracy dominated by a Fianna Fáil party that mastered the art of buying the working-class with republican rhetoric and populist concessions. Having failed to carve out a distinct political path, Labour was left with little option but to support this project at the expense of diluting its founding principles, its independent identity.

Of course, the success of the counter-revolution depended largely on the power and influence of the Catholic Church, which had been left untouched by successive national revolutions in Ireland. Parish pump concerns, combined with successive red scares orchestrated by the Church-state nexus and popularised by the conservative press, ensured that this power would go unchecked by Labour throughout the 1930s and into the McCarthyite era. Irish Labour’s refusal to stand with Republican Spain, its strong anti-communist tendencies, and staunch defence of private property, are testament to Emmet Larkin’s claim that ‘it is the most opportunistically conservative Labour party anywhere in the known world’.

By 1948, when British Labour was establishing the NHS and welfare state, and nationalising its key industries, thereby laying the foundations for social democracy, Irish Labour had become firmly part of the establishment; junior partner in a Fine Gael led government that gave the Church unrivalled access to the policymaking instruments of the state. Dr Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme presented Ireland with its own ‘social democratic moment’, in Ronan Burtenshaw’s words. Its death at the hands of a government comprising Labour ministers ensured that Catholic social teaching, with its rejection of universalism and emphasis on family, Church and charity as the basis of social welfare, would continue to provide ‘the ideological basis of Irish capitalism’.

In hindsight, this can be identified as the point of no return for political labour. Lacking a distinct ideological position, a strong Marxist or social democratic tradition to keep it honest, the Irish Labour Party has spent the best part of sixty years propping up right wing governments in exchange for the odd policy concession and the semblance of political power. Eight times Labour has entered into coalition with either of the right-wing parties. At each turn, it has compromised on its founding principles and suffered electorally, rendering itself increasingly unattractive to radicals and large sections of the working class. This has culminated in the party of Larkin and Connolly volunteering to implement a ruthless austerity programme, with devastating consequences for working-class communities and the Party’s chances of survival.

To a lesser extent, industrial labour has also been co-opted into the establishment and, as such, failed to offer a vision for a better society. The culture of ‘partnership’ and professionalisation in the trade union movement can be traced back to Seán Lemass’ project to remake the Irish economy, with a reunified Congress (ICTU) becoming part of the fabric of the state through participation in national wage agreements and tripartite bodies. Indeed, Irish trade union’s co-option into the corporatist state was so successful that by 1964 Lemass could confidently declare that ‘Class war is over’ (h/t Conor McCabe).

Social partnership can therefore be understood as an extension or renewal of previous efforts, as a traditional response to challenges of a different nature and time. Class struggle and labour rights, insofar as they existed in Ireland, once again gave way to a system based on central bargaining by union leaders. In return for wage restraint and strike moderation, unions were to be rewarded with employment growth, low levels of income tax and a role in macro-economic planning and policy formulation. Developed in the wake of the miners’ defeat in Britain, it is possible to view social partnership as a legitimate strategy for staving off the threat of Thatcherism to Ireland.

But it is precisely on these terms that it can be judged to have failed. It is through social partnership that the trade union movement facilitated the neoliberal project, opening the door to delayed Thatcherism and the increasing precariousness of work in Ireland. Empirically, the period of social partnership witnessed a decline in real wages and national income, and a drastic decline in union density, along with the defunding of vital public services. Policy gains and legislative gains, too, failed to materialise, with the Industrial Relations Act (1990) curbing labour’s ability to take industrial action. Finally, it depoliticised a generation of trade unionists and diluted the concept of political education, ultimately leaving the movement poorly positioned to resist the onslaught when it came in 2008. As a result, trade unions are discredited in communities where anti-establishment sentiments have grown to new proportions since the crisis.

It is 100 years since the Easter Rising and the working-class communities of Ireland are again without political representation, certainly in the form of a party linked organically to the trade union movement. It is therefore incumbent upon the progressive trade unions to step into the vacuum that has emerged, to carry the fight to the establishment on the industrial and political fronts, and prevent the huge anger and discontent we have seen on the streets from giving way to apathy and further gains for the counter-revolution underway.

Arguably, the progressive trade union movement is the only force with the resources, collective strength and international networks to bring together a broad front of natural allies – our members, the unemployed, minority ethnic communities and migrant workers, and unpaid carers, to name but a few – with a view to building a progressive social movement that occupies the spaces through which our vision of society can be created, diffused and reproduced. Just as neoliberalism and the narrative of TINA (There Is No Alternative) asserted their dominance over the course of a generation, becoming the new common sense, so we must embrace the task of building an alternative programme and political consciousness over a period of ten, fifteen, even twenty years if necessary. Right2Water, with its numerical strength, broad appeal, fledgling networks, proven ability to mobilise communities in extra-parliamentary struggle, and commitment to the democratisation of knowledge through political education, seems like the obvious starting point for such a process.