In 1922 the Labour party expected that the Treaty would settle the national question and clear the decks for class politics. But their dream of focusing on social issues was doomed, as Emmet O'Connor explains.
Labour emerged from the War of Independence in good heart. Thanks to the war economy and the post-war boom, membership of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC) stood at nearly 200,000, double the 1917 figure. Thanks to revolutions, at home and abroad, trade union militancy was matched by a confident radicalism.
Now Labour expected the Anglo-Irish Treaty to settle the national question and clear the decks for class politics. Its overriding concern in 1922-23 was to heal the division over the Treaty and focus on social issues. The project would be complicated by the absence of dedicated party structures (the Labour Party and Congress were one and the same), weak leadership, and internal differences over the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
More fundamentally, for workers, the boom yielded to a slump in August 1920, leading to an industrial war from August 1921 to December 1923 as an employers’ wage cutting offensive staggered on in fits and starts.
Asserting Itself Politically
From December 1921, the ILPTUC undertook a series of peace initiatives. When Dáil Éireann adjourned for Christmas, the executive approached Sinn Féin leaders with ingenious suggestions on how to circumvent the thorny issue of the Oath of Allegiance. On 10 January 1922, Labour’s first formal deputation to Dáil Éireann urged TDs to concentrate on social issues like the worsening unemployment problem.
That same day, the Congress executive issued a 'call to action’, regretting that it had not been consulted on the Treaty negotiations and affirming that whatever the outcome, Free State or Republic, it would not be a Workers’ Republic and it was time for Labour to assert itself politically.
A special conference in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre on 21 February confirmed that Labour would contest the next general election by 104-49 votes. Those against ranged from delegates who felt politics would divert energies from trade unionism to republicans who argued that, despite its official neutrality, entering Dáil Éireann would make Labour pro-Treaty. Almost all delegates called for a plebiscite on the Treaty before any elections.
Labour also took action related directly to the possibility of war. From January 1922 it tried to bring the Citizen Army under ILPTUC control by incorporating it into an expanded Workers’ Army. The Citizen Army rejected the overture and on the outbreak of the Civil War it fought alongside the IRA. On 11 April the Congress executive issued a statement insisting that sovereignty must lie with Dáil Éireann rather than ‘the army’.
When the IRA seized the Four Courts on 13 April, Congress arranged further interviews with Sinn Féin leaders, urged support for the Mansion House Peace Conference, and called a general strike against militarism for 24 April, the sixth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The strike had the blessing of the Catholic Church, pro-Treaty and business elements, and was derided as a lock-out by Labour republicans.
Labour did very well in the elections for the third Dáil in June. Seventeen of its eighteen candidates were elected, and the party won twenty-one per cent of the votes cast. Being the main alternative to continued Sinn Féin dictatorship helped, as did trade union success in withstanding employer demands for pay cuts.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the ILPTUC renewed its quests for peace, directed workers to stay out of the conflict, and pressed the Provisional Government to convene the Dáil.
W.T. Cosgrave eventually did so in September, after repeatedly deferring a meeting until the Free State army got the upper hand in the Civil War. But beware the thing that you wish for. Reconciling the gritty dynamic of industrial struggle with the shadowboxing of parliamentary politics is tricky at the best of times. An inexperienced team of TDs was taking it on at the worst of times.
And their chief was Tom Johnson, a nice man who hated confrontation and did not want to be leader. A poor tactician, he showed his hand from the outset, making it clear his dearest wish was constitutional stability.
Johnson came into his element as a parliamentarian. Arguing that democracy depended on Labour playing the role of official opposition, he insisted on draining the poisoned chalice. Unfortunately for Labour, he was not seen to be getting anything in return, and what Johnson regarded as principle and self-sacrifice, others saw as humbug and hollowness. The government scoffed at his humanitarian criticism of security practices and dismissed his efforts to influence the Saorstát constitution.
Bitter about its desertion of the republican cause, Sinn Féin targeted Labour, Johnson especially, as the underbelly of the Free State. The more he denounced the terror against them, the more abusive republicans became of him and his English background. Johnson also refused appeals from Labour militants to withdraw his deputies from Dáil Éireann in protest at the partisan deployment of the army in strikes. Labour started to look pathetic.
Being in the eye of the storm at least dealt Labour an ace; it could trump the cabinet’s dismissal of republicanism as a cloak for anarchy by raising the spectre of industrial agitation merging with ‘irregularism’ unless the government agreed to restrain employers. Financial opinion in Britain, which the government was anxious to reassure, believed that republicans might commence a campaign of economic sabotage, aided and abetted by Jim Larkin – just back from the United States – and his communist friends.
The cabinet took seriously a threat by Larkin to prevent the general election, scheduled for August 1923, failing a settlement of strikes. The cabinet agreed on 1 August to request employers to postpone wage cuts for three months, during which conferences would be convened under government auspices.
The Labour Party sailed into the hustings with pamphlets entitled How to Get Houses and If You Want Your Child to Get a Fair Start in Life. ‘It is certain’, predicted the Voice of Labour, ‘that the Labour Party in the new Dáil will be considerably stronger’.
Most observers expected republican candidates to be punished for their lack of a social programme and the wanton destructiveness of the Civil War. However, there was sympathy for the 12,000 republicans still interned and the anti-Treatyites did surprisingly well.
Paying the price
Above all, Labour TDs paid the price of their irrelevance to the industrial war. The Dáil party was clipped to fourteen TDs and saw its share of the poll reduced to 11 per cent. The strike wave petered out towards the end of the year as unions accepted pay and staff cuts, and the spirit of post 1917 militancy was crushed. Membership of the ILPTUC continued to fall until 1929, when it reached 92,000.
For Labour republicans, the Citizen Army, Larkinites, and communists, the Civil War was a counter-revolution, driven ultimately by the British. But for the ILPTUC and most workers, it was caused by IRA unwillingness to compromise or accept the will of the people and led to a senseless campaign of economic vandalism. This was all the more reprehensible as the boom had given way to a slump. Politics and economics combined to make 1923 a catastrophic year for the Labour movement.
This article is part of the War of Independence project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.