From Socialist Voice, May 2011

May Day in Dublin

Once again the May Day demonstration in Dublin was an abysmal affair, with only a couple of hundred people taking part. While organising a march on a holiday weekend always proves difficult, this year’s attendance was one of the poorest ever, following nearly a decade of badly planned and executed attempts to celebrate International Workers’ Day.
     The fortunes of the celebration of May Day in this state are very mixed. A little bit of history is needed to understand how we ended up in this position.
     The big general strike in May 1917 against conscription was probably the largest political manifestation in the history of the Irish labour movement. Since then there have been repeated attempts to depoliticise or to abolish May Day.
     After the Second World War, against the background of mass left-wing support throughout Europe, the Catholic Church even invented a “Feast of St Joseph the Worker” on the 1st of May to reinforce Catholic social teaching within the trade union movement and among workers in general, to encourage anti-communism, and to promote class collaboration.
     In the 1950s the trade union movement in Dublin could bring more than 100,000 workers out on the day, invoking prayers, mild speeches of social harmony, and condemnation of the socialist countries—an ideology still shared today by sections of the leadership of the trade union movement. Up to recently the ITGWU (forerunner of SIPTU) held its Connolly commemoration in Dublin with a march to Church Street for Mass.
     At the same time Irish communists revived the public celebration of May Day in Dublin, with a public meeting at the traditional corner of Middle Abbey Street and O’Connell Street. This was at the height of the Cold War and anti-communist hysteria. Those attending as well as the speakers came under ferocious attacks from thugs, in particular the “animal gangs,” resulting in pitched battles and hand-to-hand fighting.
     Some party members bore the scars of those battles for the rest of their life. One suffered acute hearing loss and also experienced periodic seizures for the rest of his life from a beating he received with a bicycle chain, though it did not deter him and other comrades from marking May Day.
     Communists kept up the annual celebration of May Day throughout the 1950s and 60s. In the 1970s, at the invitation of the CPI, a United May Day Committee was formed, comprising the CPI, Left Liaison Committee of the Labour Party, Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party, the Union of Students in Ireland, and the Connolly Youth Movement. This was part of the CPI’s attempt to forge alliances and build left unity.
     The May Day demonstration gradually grew and developed, with thousands of people taking part and speakers from all the member-organisations as well as from struggles taking place at the time, notably the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
     While trade union banners had been carried for some time, in the mid-1970s the Dublin Council of Trade Unions accepted an invitation to march officially and speak on the May Day platform for the first time. This reflected the growing influence of the left within the trade union movement.
     Building left unity was—and is, as we can see today—beset with difficulties and indeed setbacks. Tensions arose with the political degeneracy within SFWP as it moved steadily away from socialist republicanism to economism and finally becoming an anti-national, pro-imperialist apologist within this state and the Northern statelet. Former broad-left coalitions and co-operation were eroded in the trade unions by the growing influence of its secret groups in pushing this agenda.
     Each year the United May Day Committee published a joint manifesto for the occasion, which was distributed at the demonstration as well as within the trade union movement. This practice was brought to an end in 1977 when SFWP agreed to the manifesto and indeed offered to print it but then refused to hand it over for distribution.
     The following year the SFWP members who were delegates to the Dublin Council of Trade Unions proposed a motion calling on the council to organise the May Day march. This put the CPI in a difficult position, as it had striven for years to get trade unions to take part but at the same time was acutely aware of the political limitations and the economism that pervade the trade union movement. It was the thinking of the CPI that the format of the May Day event should be maintained as it was, with a strategic approach of involving the trade union movement with a left approach to politics.
     SFWP revisionism was pushed aggressively through its secret trade union cabal. As part of the anti-national ideological drive, for example, attempts were made to elevate the role of Jim Larkin in opposition to Connolly and to promote Seán O’Casey’s criticism of Connolly’s involvement in the 1916 Rising. A leading member of the SFWP Industrial Group was quoted in the news magazine Magill as saying that their party’s strategy was “to smash the Communist Party and to replace the Labour Party.”
     The trades council continued to organise May Day. Its great success came in the late 1970s when the big demonstrations calling for tax reform took place in Dublin and then spread around the country. (Incidentally, the purpose of the demonstrations, the call for industrial action to demand that the rich pay tax, was moved by the communist members of the trades council—but that’s a story for another time.) The campaign won modest reforms, but subsequently the demand for tax equality and tax reform was hijacked by the populist demand for tax cuts, which of course resulted in greater advantages for the rich.
     This mobilisation of workers by trades councils in Dublin and around the country terrified not only the political and economic establishment but also some leading sections of the trade union movement. Up to that time the trades council was a forum for rank-and-file trade unionists, which gave it a certain autonomy in operating. After the growing mobilisations more and more full-time union officials were nominated, which meant that the previous freedom and independence of delegates became more controlled. The ICTU went further and stifled the influence of trades councils by limiting their powers through procedural restrictions.
     Since the mid-1990s May Day in Dublin has been in decline. This is a reflection both of the morass that the labour movement has been dragged into in the form of “social partnership” and also of the numerical decline and organisational weakness of the traditional left forces.
     What is clear from the history of May Day in Dublin is that it grew and developed and became the premier display of the organised working class in the city when is was linked to the struggles of the people, and had a clear political expression and message, and when the left had a more direct involvement in organising and mobilising for it.
     We need to get back to the position of shared ownership and responsibility for rebuilding May Day, involving the trades council, left parties, and people’s campaigns.

■ In future issues we will be publishing articles correcting the historical record and reclaiming the work of communists in the people’s struggles, especially those that are now claimed by others.

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