British Labour and Irish Needs

by James Winder Good

Originally published in Studies: An IrishQuarterly Review, Volume 9, No. 36, December, 1920

IT would be stupid as well as churlish to refuse to recognise that the attitude of English to Irish Labour is one of goodwill. There may be differences of opinion as to the practical value of goodwill as measured by the warmth of resolutions passed at the tail-end of conferences at Caxton Hall and in Unity House, or of the declarations of sympathy which on platforms and in Parliament are nowadays amongst the stock utterances of trade union leaders. But it cannot reasonably be doubted that goodwill exists; and this is a factor, as even thorough-going professors of realpolitik are aware, which (provided other things are added to it) may be of incalculable political importance.

Why is it that in the main English Labour in its dealings with this country limits itself to abstract declarations of sympathy, and even in crises which it is no less important to English than to Irish democracy should be solved in the Irish way stops short of deeds while lavishing eloquent words? The question urgently demands an answer, but the answers that have been given are not seldom dictated by the particular bias of the questioner rather than by an impartial desire to discover the truth. I do not think it is profitable to waste much time on arguments which seek to solve the riddle by attributing to British trade unionists sinister Machiavellian schemes which, under the guise of a proffer of friendship, arc really inspired by racial rancour. The hypocrisy, if it exists, is (I imagine) wholly unconscious, and though racial differences do contribute to the misunderstanding their significance does not lie in the fact that English Labour sets itself to exploit and accentuate them, but that, on the contrary, it fails to allow for them and endeavours to act as if they did not enter into the issue.

The great stumbling-block, to my mind, is the genuine inability of the British worker and his leaders to realize what are, in Irish opinion, fundamental facts. Probe deeply enough into their minds, and one finds at every critical juncture the assumption that Irish democracy, in so far as it pursues a different course from that which English democratic opinion would map out, is recklessly abandoning the straight and narrow path to hunt after will-o'-the-wisps. On another plane this is the hoary fallacy which vitiates all English thinking on Irish questions, and though the trade unionist deplores and denounces the blindness of other parties in their efforts to frame an Irish policy, he displays an almost equal lack of comprehension. He jibes at the partisans who proclaim that, if Irishmen would only become good Liberals or good Conservatives, all their ills would disappear as if by magic; but in practice he insists no less strenuously that the one thing necessary for our economic and political salvation is that we should sink everything else to become good Labour men after his peculiar fashion.

For the Irishman, however, the vital thing is to be a good Irishman, without which he instinctively realizes he can hope to be nothing. He does not reject Liberalism, Conservatism or Labour; his problem is to clear the ground so that he and his fellows may be free to choose their own line of development. This is exactly what our neighbours on the other side of the Irish Sea fail to understand. The lumber and shot rubbish which all our energies are directed to removing from our path are not in their eyes serious impediments. And certainly they are not impediments which in their opinion justify the subordination of class differences to national ends. Therefore, when Irish Labour persists in giving battle in causes which cross-Channel Labour decides are not class causes, one finds, not perhaps expressed in words, but always implicit in action or in the refusal to act, the conclusion that this is part of the perversity which, for the English, is inherent in the Irish temperament.

Perversity is the last charge that can be sustained against Irish Labour. Whether one agrees or disagrees with its ideals and methods, one must admit that these are simple, coherent and rigidly logical. Dominating all other considerations in its policy is the rooted conviction that the sole hope of progress lies in establishing conditions in Ireland under which Irish influences will have the power to shape national destinies free from outside intervention or dictation. Once this fact is grasped, the difficulties raised by doctrinaires as to tactics are seen to be wholly irrelevant. By combining with other sections of their countrymen in a united effort to eliminate alien rule Irish workers, far from betraying their special interests, are adopting the only method by which these interests can be successfully advanced. A family may wrangle fiercely over the division of property; but if armed burglars invade the house, the disputants will have little hesitation in joining hands to expel them. No Irishman asserts that the ending of foreign rule means necessarily the coming of Utopia; but he knows in his bones that, until he is master in his own house, not only is Utopia an impossibility, but it is idle to hope for any radical improvement in the existing social fabric. This is not an illusion created by hysterical nationalism; it is the impression of a belief founded on the solid and unassailable facts of history. To no one does it come home more forcibly than to the worker, who has no need to make up evidence from blue-books and reports but collects his proofs from his own experience in everyday life.

Undoubtedly the forces which are resolved to hold Ireland in thrall to her neighbour would maintain their strangle-hold even if Labour had never emerged as a problem. But those whose special interest it is to ensure that the worker shall always be the under-dog look to the bludgeon of British domination as the best weapon in their armoury. As the bludgeon has been used in the past, and is still being used when a suitable opportunity offers, to prevent industrial progress, so it is used even more ruthlessly to defeat the aspirations of Irish Labour. At the worst, Irish prosperity was and is feared only by an English minority who see in it a menace to their profits; the demand of Irish Labour is regarded by the property owners and profiteers, whose policy the English Government (even in "a world made safe for democracy") exists to enforce, as a challenge which threatens their very existence.

Irish Labour seeks to establish a new status, to supersede the theory of crumbs from the master's table and the cash nexus beloved of Victorian economists by a settlement based on human rights and conforming to an ethical ideal. The Irish people on the whole recognise the justice of this claim; and though, I admit, much will have to be done, even in a self-governing Ireland, before difficulties are finally removed, the best brains and the best thought of an independent Ireland will be directed to the framing of a charter which will ensure that class divisions shall not, as in existing capitalist states, perpetually imperil the ideal of national unity. The reactionaries who have poured out hundreds of millions, not (as they profess) to punish Lenin for crimes against humanity but to compass the ruin of a government which rejects their economic creed, are alive and alert to the danger which would accrue to them from an Ireland which would settle labour difficulties by reason and goodwill instead of by coercion and machine-guns.

Irish poverty has in the past always been held by the dominant minority to be the guarantee of English security, and the minority is still more strongly convinced that to retain class divisions and perpetuate class antagonisms in Ireland is equally essential to the maintenance of its economic ascendancy nearer home. But what of the British majority for whom the overthrow of this economic ascendancy is a matter of life and death? Why does it fail to realize the bearing of the Irish struggle on its own battle? Its opponents make no concealment of their belief that an Irish victory would be for them a disaster, and they are mobilising all their resources to prevent such a victory. Their activity, far from spurring British Labour to act, seems on the contrary to induce a state of still more inglorious passivity.

Even the Carsonite pogroms--the most deadly blow levelled at Labour, and not at Irish Labour alone, in living memory--have evoked from the elected leaders of English Labour no more than a few weak protests, which for all their practical effect might as well have remained unuttered. The men who rushed to join in a blockade to end the White Terror in Hungary and declined to load ammunition for the Poles have made no effort to meet the challenge of Belfast, though it is a matter which concerns them more nearly than anything that has happened in Budapest or Warsaw. They affect to regard it as a mere explosion of sectarian bitterness, a mediaeval survival peculiar to Ireland and without any bearings on affairs outside its borders. This view is entirely misleading. Undoubtedly these passions were loosed by men to whom the burning of Catholic houses and the maiming or even the murder of their owners and occupants are in themselves desirable things. But the gusto of the outrage-mongers is all the greater if their exploits can be made to serve other purposes equally dear to their heart. And in Ulster they serve a very definite purpose. The underlying object of the pre-war Carsonite campaign was not merely to defeat the Asquith Home Rule Bill, but to discredit the whole theory of democratic rule. Thanks to the supineness of British Liberalism this was accomplished with entire success, and illegal force superseded legal right and justice as the dominant influence in Irish affairs. The post-war campaign now in full swing aims at completing the triumph by destroying the solidarity of Labour, and involving its Protestant and Catholic wings in an internecine conflict for the advantage of plutocrats and profiteers.

The movement is represented in Great Britain as a protest against Sinn Fein, but its real genesis is to be found in the Belfast general strike of January and February, 1919. To the Ulster leaders, who are capitalists first and Carsonites afterwards, this strike, organised by Orange workers as a demonstration of their adhesion to democratic principles, was an upheaval of as sinister significance as would have been an acceptance of the full Republican programme. It revealed that even if the plot to cut out the six counties should succeed as a political device, its success would be for them a disaster were the Orange rank and file resolved to insist on a fair division of the spoils. Though staggered, the ruling faction was not dismayed, and its resources were speedily mobilised and directed with passionate energy to the old game of creating divisions in the ranks by kindling sectarian animosities.

The strike did not fail for this reason; its collapse was due to weak leading and worse staff-work. But in the cold fit that followed the return of the men to work on the masters' terms it was not difficult for unscrupulous propagandists to foster suspicions and intensify differences. These efforts were materially aided by a slump in shipbuilding activity and by a shortage of raw material and orders in linen mills and weaving factories. The real enemies of the workers, it was argued, were not masters who paid poor wages, but Sinn Fein intruders from South of the Boyne who were drawing large sums weekly while Protestant workers walked the streets in compulsory idleness. These Sinn Feiners were as mythical as the Russian army which in 1914 was supposed to be passing through England on its way to Belgium. Though the shipyards alone could at one time have found places for 5,000 Southern workers, only a tenth of this number was ever available. And from the Armistice onwards there was a steady reduction in the ranks of the temporary workers. But the legend speedily became an article of faith, and when feeling had become sufficiently embittered the Orange leaders gave the signal for a Jehad.

To-day their dupes, glutted with loot and blood, believe that they have at last entered into their heritage. What they have done, however, is to rivet still more firmly about their necks the fetters of their taskmasters. Henceforth their energies will be absorbed in preventing the Ulster Catholics from rising above the condition of helots. This is, no doubt, a thoroughly congenial task, but the Orange worker is certain to discover before long that it has its drawbacks as well as its delights. As in the Land War Protestant tenants were told that by insisting on justice for themselves they were playing into the hands of those who were "marching through ruin and rapine to the dismemberment of the Empire," so every claim bv Protestant workers for better wages and conditions of labour will be denounced as a plot inspired by the enemy for the undoing of the Carsonite cause.

British Labour recognised that British Liberalism by its tame surrender to Carsonism in 1914 signed its own political death-warrant. But the Carsonite challenge of 1920 finds labour equally reluctant to take up the gauntlet. A couple of unions took the obvious course of declaring that the imposition of sectarian tests would ensure the expulsion of all members applying them. Had that policy been generally adopted the Orange veto would have been speedily broken. Unfortunately, the majority of the Unions elected to stand aside after making a purely formal protest. Carsonism has scored all along the line, and it will not be the fault of its leaders if their victory has not reactions in areas far removed from Ulster. They and their English backers are well aware that they have struck a blow at the central principle of trade unionism more destructive in its effects than the Taff Vale judgment; and the blow is not the end but the beginning of an offensive.

Even if we assume -an assumption which is contradicted by the facts--that cross-Channel labour was powerless in Carsonia, it was not powerless as far as the rest of Ireland is concerned. Its intervention would have turned the scale at an early stage in the munitions dispute, and intervention should not only have been forthcoming on the merits of the question but was an obligation of honour which could not be repudiated without an open betrayal of principle. To load war stores for Ireland while refusing to load them for Poland cannot be explained away as merely a tactical blunder. Had it been this and no more, the Council of Action would long since have repaired its error, instead of which it has deliberately turned its back on Irishmen who are fighting to establish a principle which in theory it still ostentatiously professes to cherish. If, as is asserted on good authority, Labour was pot-valiant about Poland because a hint had been dropped by Mr. Lloyd George that a demonstration of the kind would not be unwelcome to the Government, which was at its wits' end to discover some effective means of bringing pressure to bear on France, its responsibility for what is happening and what may happen in Ireland is still heavier. Nor can that responsibility, as some trade union leaders appear to think, be evaded by the issue of manifestoes, however strongly worded or by declarations that produce no results in action.

One would have thought that the least intelligent elements in British Labour would long since have discerned the consequences to their own interests that flowed from their muddle-headed attitude towards Ireland. They made no effective protest against the inauguration of a White Terror in Ireland; and though England has up to the present escaped a White Terror, the Act which was rushed through Parliament during the coal strike enabling the Government in what it chooses to decide is a national emergency to declare a state of siege, ensures that in the future the English worker, if the need arises, shall learn at first hand what coercion means in practice. English Labour is repeating the worst mistakes of English Liberalism, and for precisely the same reasons. The men who direct its affairs are hypnotised by the prospect of one day occupying the seats of the mighty, and believe that they will have an easier tenure of office if they refrain now from pushing opposition to extremes. Apart altogether from the question of principle, the Carsonite campaign against the Asquithians should open their eyes to the treatment they may expect if the reins of nominal power are ever placed in their hands. But their enemies have not waited for their advent to office to begin the process of sapping their strength. The process is already in operation, and their reluctance to do anything except argue on the Irish issue steadily diminishes their prestige.

It is possible to find excuses for British Labour's shortcomings from the Irish point of view, but the air of condescension which it adopts is decidedly trying at times. I am willing to admit that the condescension is largely unconscious, but this does not make it less objectionable. Undoubtedly, as compared with the Irish movement, British Labour can show a long record of material success. But, as its best friends admit, if it has not failed, it falls short in just those things which make Irish Labour so vital a factor in Irish life. Leaders and followers alike are inherently suspicious of ideas, and are singularly averse from giving battle in any cause which does not hold out the hope of an immediate return in hard cash. This attitude is not necessarily wrong; on the contrary, it would be easy to show that it has contributed in no small degree to the building up of the labour movement on solid foundations in the face of opposition so strong and well organised that a purely idealist crusade would have stood little chance of making head against it.

English Labour has now reached a stage when lack of vision is more dangerous to its future than lack of caution. It may be easier and safer, as its leaders appear to believe, to travel in a rut; but the ruts do not lead to the heights; and before English Labour can enter the Promised Land it must abandon made roads for the difficult mountain tracks. If it decides to essay the adventure, it will find in Irish Labour an invaluable ally. Whatever the defects of our workers and their leaders may be, and that they have defects cannot be denied, they possess in a rare degree moral courage and imaginative insight. These qualities they are ready to place at the disposal of their fellows on the other side of the Irish Sea, provided that the alliance is a federation of equals and not a combination in which the smaller unit must conform in all things to the dictates of the greater. Is English Labour prepared to work for the success of a policy which Irish Labour freely accepts? If its leaders are, then the outlook is bright. But if they are not willing to concede us the right to tackle our urgent problems in our own way, let them concentrate their energies on their own affairs instead of seeking, as they have so often done, to score a point against their opponents by futile and sterile professions of sympathy with Irish claims which cost little to make and are worth less than nothing.