Shortly before he was executed, James Connolly told his daughter Nora "They will never understand why I am here; they will forget that I am an Irishman.” They were the leaders of the British labour movement.
Fast forward to the 5th of May 1981 when I was helping to organise the People's March for Jobs in the SERTUC office at Congress House, the TUC's head quarters in London's Great Russell Street.
Before I left home that morning the Today radio programme announced Bobby Sands had died overnight in the Maze prison hospital after 66 days on hunger strike. He was just 27 years old. Yet when I went into Congress House that morning his death had created hardly a murmur. It was as if it had taken place in a far off land, not in a disputed part of the nation we all lived in. It was as if nothing of importance had occurred overnight.
Today Sands is rightly regarded as a heroic individual throughout much of the world. Streets have been named after him in countries as different as France and Iran. Monsignor Denis Faul, no friend of the IRA, who as the Catholic chaplain in the jail had vigorously opposed the hunger strike and was instrumental in bringing them to an end after the death of ten men, said this shortly after Bobby died:
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends"
When Bobby Sands died many wept in disbelief, others raged at the sheer callousness of the Thatcher government, many socialists were outraged at the adamant refusal of the British Labour Party leadership to intervene on the side of the hunger strikers, as even the Vatican had done.
Below Andy Stowe reviews a new book Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement. It looks at how the British Labour Party leadership turned their backs on the Dublin Easter Rising, and made no effort to save it's leaders from execution. Indeed, the then LP leader Arthur Henderson, was a member of the British coalition government which acquiesced to the British army's request to introduce martial law in Ireland, and appointed Major-General John Maxwell as Commander-in-Chief of all troops stationed there. He was given carte blanche to restore order, put down the rebellion, and punish its participants.
Amongst the sixteen rebels executed were trade unionists like Michael Mallen and James Connolly. Connolly was well known in trade union circles across the Irish sea. As were William Brien and Tom Foran, founding members along with Connoly of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, (ITGWU) who were both imprisoned after the Easter Rising.
Following Connolly's execution, Liberty Hall, the Union’s headquarters in Dublin and it's records were seized by the British military authorities, but ITGWU members refused to be intimidated, unlike their British counterparts in London who failed to raise even a whimper against the brutal behavior of the British authorities in Ireland.
After their release from prison, Tom Foran, William O'Brien and others helped rebuild the organisation which is today called SIPTU.
Hopefully now the LP has a socialist at the helm whose record on Ireland is solid, there can be a new dawn, no longer will leading members of the British Labour movement look the other way as far as Ireland is concerned.
Jeremy Corbyn finds himself in the tricky position of being the anti-austerity leader of a party which is rather ambivalent on the subject. To compound his problem he is the anti-imperialist leader of a party which has generally taken the view that British imperialism is, all things considered, not that bad. In the words of an earlier Labour leader:
“When the expression “British” is used in civil matters it implies something more than a mere description of racial or national origin. “British” justice, “British” honour, “British” administration, carry to our minds certain qualities of justice, honour, and administration, and our Imperial policy has always been commended to our people at home – whenever they troubled their heads about it these moral or qualitative grounds. The Empire must exist not merely for safety, or order, or peace, but for richness of life.”
That’s from Ramsay MacDonald’s 1907 pamphlet Labour and the Empire, but it pretty much sums up Tony Blair’s or Gordon Brown’s view on the civilising mission of modern British imperialism.
Geoffrey Bell’s new book Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement is full of jaw dropping quotes like that. The author has clearly spent a vast amount of time in archives and libraries trawling through the British left press and trade union minutes of the early 20th century looking for, and more often than not, failing to find, what they were thinking, writing and doing about their nearest and oldest colony. Even readers who thought they were familiar with just how craven the Labour Party and union leaderships were in the face of imperialism will find things that will shock them. For example, the naval power which saw off the Spanish armada, the Dutch fleet, Bonaparte’s ships and the Kaiser’s Imperial Navy was ostensibly terrified at the prospect of an independent Ireland as a naval threat. So, when some form of Irish self-determination became inevitable, there was a queue of Labour politicians insisting that any agreement impose strict limits on how many ships and how many troops it should have. It almost makes the pro-Trident lobby seem rational.
Another recurring motif in British labourism was a concern for the rights of minorities. In most circumstances this is entirely laudable. In the specific circumstances of early 20th century Ireland it meant supporting the right of the Protestant minority in the north of the country to overrule the democratic rights of the majority and enabled the island’s partition. In practice it meant that Labour and the TUC endorsed pogroms which forced Catholic workers out of the Belfast shipyards from 1920 onwards and Bell devotes several useful pages to the carpenters’ dispute, a squalid little episode in which British trade unionists even prevented a collection from being taken up for victims of sectarian violence.
Reviewed by Andy Stowe.
First published here
Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement by Geoffrey Bell (Pluto Press, 273pp, £17)