August 2013        

A decade of centenaries

Writing in an earlier issue, we advised our readers to view the decade of centenary commemorations not as a collection of isolated events but rather as the unfolding of a series of dramatic events, each dependent on the others.
     A hundred years ago, modern Ireland was being moulded within a crisis of imperial conflicts, with its high point the slaughter of the First World War. Thus, against a background as diverse as the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the building of the Titanic, and the preparations for the 1916 Rising, we were not so sure what we were being asked to commemorate. One thing was certain: Ireland’s path in the world would never be the same again.
     But for now the commemorations of the 1913 Lock-out have fascinated the country. From strawberries and cream at a garden party in Áras an Uachtaráin to Liberty Hall being shrouded in an exterior wrap with works of art depicting scenes from the events, there is something for all tastes.
     As usual, academic Ireland is pushing its boat out, with seminars, books, and television programmes. However, it should be acknowledged that those who have always realised the historical significance of the 1913 events have also publicly been sure of its message. As well as the political left, community groups are proudly presenting the horrors of conditions in the Dublin slums, with no apologies for “Larkinism” and the class-based “fiery crusade.” If even a small few of our young people—isolated from all this radical history in our school system—are infused with the drama, it will be worth it.
     But 1913 was not an isolated struggle, as we have pointed out. It was the high point of the entry of the Irish working class as a major organised force into the national life of the country. Kept to the sidelines by sectional craft unions, the vast majority of semi-skilled workers and “labourers” lived in poverty. They were kept as political cannon fodder for the gombeen remnants of the Parnellite Irish Party. That is why Connolly proposed in Clonmel in 1912 that the Irish Trades Union Congress create a Labour Party to break the hold of the Irish Tammany Hall. He himself had earlier created the Irish Socialist Republican Party to further the spread of socialist ideas.
     The features that gave rise to the great industrial unrest, based on the upsurge of the rank and file of labour, was a reflection of what was happening in the growing cities of Britain, Australia, and the United States. Known in Britain as the “new unionism” and in the United States taking the form of the Industrial Workers of the World, it was permeated by the radicalism of anarchists, syndicalists, socialists, and Marxists.
     Everywhere it met the iron heel of the ruling class; the William Martin Murphys were everywhere, and behind them their judges, cops, goons, and scabs—not forgetting the press.
     For the masses of workers to build a trade union movement in their image took years of struggle, defeats, and rebuilding. 1913 was preceded by the Belfast Lock-out of 1907, by the general strikes in Wexford and Sligo. The organising of women workers into unions and solidarity work was another necessity of this newborn power.
     The independent role of labour divided society and brought people of good will to its side. Nothing symbolised this phenomenon more sharply than the creation from a strikers’ self-defence force of a revolutionary army, the Irish Citizen Army. To bourgeois Ireland this was indeed the “terrible beauty” that was born.
     It was Connolly who said that “the best way to respect the dead is to honour the dead”; and indeed a new youth group in Dublin calls itself 1913, Unfinished Business. But today’s world is a far different place; so where should we begin?
     Profound changes have taken place in the structure and composition of the working class, as in society itself, since Connolly and Larkin’s day. No more will thousands of workers stream out of Jacob’s biscuit factor or Boland’s mills; the Titanic docks are a museum; Britain is deindustrialised; and Detroit, the centre of the American car industry, is a bankrupt ghost city.
     Trade union membership has never been lower, yet all the inequality and social deprivation remain, though sometimes concealed. The power of capital, particularly finance capital, is as firmly entrenched as ever but with a new aggressiveness born from the banking crisis. Everywhere in Europe the working people are being squeezed to save the profits of the speculators, banks, and financial institutions. What were termed “good jobs” are being replaced—if at all—by low-paid, short-contract, part-time and non-union jobs in the private sector.
     There are elements of a rerun of the pre-1913 situation in all this, such as sectional trade unionism, particularly in the public sector; but where is the new unionism? It cannot be created by blaming the “bureaucracy,” nor by leftist wishful thinking; after all, we are dealing with grass roots that are atomised, fragmented, and apolitical.
     However, we have to win young people in particular to the concept that union membership can make a difference and to win union activists to the need for new approaches to overcome the negativity of “being union.” Campaigning among traditionally low-paid jobs, many of them largely made up of women, has been successfully undertaken by Mandate and SIPTU, perhaps encouraged by American unions taking on Walmart and McDonald’s.
     The new unionism of 1913 had that other necessary ingredient: it knew who the class enemy was, and it knew that you needed to fight it. From its ranks it developed the thinking to sustain itself in the belief that there was something better. It rejected the perceived wisdom of the day that there is no alternative.
     Today much of the “TINA” thinking is coming from sections of the leadership of the trade union movement itself. Influencing this are the sectional interests that narrow the concept of a trade union movement to a collection of self-interest associations. And adding to it are the apologists for the status quo who support this Government, believing that a purely Fine Gael one would be worse without Labour Party participation. The SIPTU magazine Liberty quotes its vice-president, Patricia King, as saying: “There are only five members of the Government who have any interest in implementing collective bargaining reforms to provide trade unions with greater scope to represent workers.”
     The editorial in the same issue talks tough. As part of speculations about the budget it maintains that the Troika, the Central Bank and the ESRI are pressing for the €3.1 billion austerity, while it rejects this as being necessary because of leeway with the promissory note deal, Croke Park 2, etc. It urges Gilmore to take on the blackmail threats and even goes as far as to say, “Éamon Gilmore and the Labour Party must stick to their guns even if this means leaving the Government.”
     Would this happen? Am I being cynical in suggesting that something called the “national interest” might intrude at the last minute?
     As we know, however, deeds speak louder than words. As this article was being written Dubliners were walking to work. Workers in the state-owned Dublin Bus were on strike to defend gains won by previous generations. Who is the minister of state for public and commuter transport? Alan Kelly TD, a member of the Labour Party and of SIPTU.

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