‘HAVE YOU IN IRELAND ALL GONE MAD’ - the 1918 general strike against conscription
By Padraig Yeates
An abridged version of this article appeared in Saothar 43, Journal of the Irish Labour History Society, April 2018
There are probably few major events in twentieth century Irish history which have received less attention than the general strike against conscription, although it was the most successful demonstration of workers political power in the revolutionary decade and provided the strongest practical demonstration of mass public opposition to British rule during those years, at least in the 26 counties that would constitute the Irish Free State in 1922.
The proposals put forward by the Labour representatives for fighting conscription were also the most comprehensive and innovative of any organisation involved in the campaign. If adopted they would have radically changed the nature of the struggle for independence.
Unfortunately, the very success of the first general strike in Irish history intensified divisions within the Labour movement between a rapidly emerging, nationalist oriented and largely Catholic working class in the 26 counties and its long established Protestant counterpart in Belfast and the hinterland, which identified with Britain and the Empire. The dynamics of the conscription crisis made this breach both inevitable and irreversible when the Catholic Church decided to actively support opposition to the measure and a pan-nationalist front was established that ranged from constitutional to militant nationalists and the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILP&TUC).
For all these reasons it is an event well worth revisiting.
Strains within the Irish Labour movement before the Conscription Crisis
A breach within Labour’s ranks had been avoided in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising by Thomas Johnson’s deft balancing act at the ILP&TUC conference in Sligo in August of that year. He used his presidential address to pay tribute to all those ‘who gave their lives for what they believed to be the Cause … of Liberty and Democracy and for Love of their Country’. He reminded delegates of their common opposition to partition and conscription, describing the latter as ‘the crowning act of degradation’ imposed ‘on the British people. Whatever may be debited against Militant Nationalism in Ireland, to its credit must be written the freedom of our people from that tyranny!’
Initially conscription proved an easier issue on which to agree a common policy than partition. As the demands of the front drained manpower reserves in 1917 British public opinion grew increasingly susceptible to press campaigns to extend the draft across the Irish Sea. In early October, the ILP&TUC executive adopted a resolution, forwarded to the government and the British Labour Party, warning them it would call ‘upon all trade unionists to prepare to resist, by every means, the imposition of compulsory military service on the Irish people’. Far from being uneasy at such a policy some Belfast trade union leaders, such as Dawson Gordon of the Belfast Flax Roughers and Yarn Spinners Union, felt it did not go far enough. Subsequently a deputation was sent to London to put its’ views before British Labour Party leaders and, in November, the ILP&TUC Executive agreed a draft programme addressed to ‘The Working Men and Women of Ireland’, declaring Congress’s ‘determined antagonism to Conscription’.
The Crisis: Belfast leads the way
It was the German offensive in March 1918 that made the threat of conscription a reality. Recruitment in Ireland had fallen to 80 men a week, and a petition signed by over 100,000 people in Britain, including 46 MPs, had been submitted to parliament demanding conscription on the neighbouring island. With the prospect of raising the call up age from 42 to 48 or 50, and sending teenagers to the front, Lloyd George’s coalition government had to be seen to be doing something to find Irish replacements of prime military age. When T. P. O’Connor, who often acted as a conduit between the Irish Party leadership and the British government, remonstrated that the introduction of conscription could cost a hundred lives in Ireland, the Prime Minister said, ‘the English people who are sending their sons to the war would not care if it cost ten thousand’. John Dillon pleaded with Lloyd George’s predecessor, Herbert Henry Asquith, to support his call for Home Rule to be introduced before conscription. Asquith’s response was as blunt as Lloyd George’s, ‘Conscription first and then self-determination’. Appeals to Labour members of the War Cabinet such as George Barnes, a supporter of Dublin workers in the 1913 Lockout, fared no better. He called on Irish workers over the heads of the ITUC&LP Executive not to oppose conscription, assuring them that ‘Home Rule is right ahead’
If conscription pitched the conflicting aims of nationalist Ireland and the British Empire against each other in the starkest terms imaginable, it might still have been possible for Irish labour to have retained its own distinct voice by posing the choice in class terms, as Thomas Johnson and David Campbell attempted to do. Campbell, as Congress Treasurer and a representative of the Belfast Trades and Labour Council on the ITUC&LP executive was, like Johnson, one of the most senior Northern figures in the movement. When the British government introduced the Military Service Bill to the House of Commons on April 9th, 1918, Campbell and Johnson lobbied the TUC in London and organised the first anti-conscription protest in Ireland on Saturday 14 April, at Belfast’s Custom House steps.
Posters were distributed in the city warning workers that:
‘Once a man is a soldier he may be compelled under pain of being SHOT FOR DISOBEDIENCE to work at his own or any other trade, at soldier’s pay with his gaffer an officer over him.
‘THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE POWER BEHIND THE GOVERNMENT IS AIMING AT. The Capitalists, Bankers and Landlords of England fear social revolution after the War, they fear the rising discontent of the workers, the coming into power of the people, and they mean to save their power and their privileges. THE IRON HEEL HAS BEGUN TO WORK!
‘THAT IS THE REAL PURPOSE OF THE BILL!’
They predicted that, ‘All active Trade Unionists, branch presidents, secretaries, shop stewards’ and young men generally ‘would be forced into military service… Now is the time to resist, before the Bill becomes law’.
Johnson and Campbell stressed in their speeches that all occupations were at risk, including skilled trades where Protestant workers predominated. They could expect soldiers’ pay of 1s or 1s 6d a day, rather than the 10s to 30s they currently enjoyed. In his speech notes Johnson said Nationalists were being offered the promise of Home Rule if they served in the army, but loyalists faced an uncertain fate. ‘Despite your Covenants - when you are all soldiers you will be helpless. If likely to be active in opposition to Home Rule you will be shipped to England, or France or Mesopotamia, or anywhere the Government likes’. Johnson conceded, characteristically, that, ‘These are considerations of a somewhat sordid character’. He now appealed to his audience on a ‘Higher Plane’, telling workers that, ‘No Nation has the right to impose on another nation the necessity of choosing between serving in their army or resisting’. This was the ‘Breeding of hatred between the democracies’. On a ‘Still Higher Plane. No external power has the right to say to a man go and kill’, which ‘Must be left to one’s own conscience.’
Some 10,000 people attended the rally and a second meeting was called three days later at City Hall only to be broken up by loyalist shipyard workers. Johnson received a bad cut on the head from a lump of concrete in the melee. Normally discreet about his union activities the unwonted publicity cost him his job as a commercial traveller with Day and Company for this display of ‘disloyalty’ to the Crown. He would soon find a new occupation as secretary of the Mansion House Committee, which was established in Dublin on 18 April to campaign against conscription. Meanwhile Johnson’s fears about the Bill rapidly becoming law were confirmed when it received the Royal Assent on the same day.
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