The anti-conscription general strike

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—I wish to respond to some of the points made by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght (HI 26.3, May/June 2018, letters) regarding my article ‘A sheep in wolf’s clothing no match for the wise serpent’ (HI 26.2, March/April 2018).

First, at no point did I say that the Catholic Church ‘inspired the stoppage’.

Second, Rayner produces no evidence to support his own assertion that ‘Irish Labour sidelined the independence struggle as a whole’. On the contrary, the sources show that the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress was happy to follow the lead of Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers in the mobilisation of the majority of Irish people to oppose conscription. As a result, the labour movement in the south identified itself strongly with the drive towards independence and, in the north, this development led it to identify even more strongly than in the past with remaining in the United Kingdom.

Third, he makes the frequent mistake of equating the major expansion in trade union numbers and enhanced class consciousness with the possibilities of a socialist revolution, which was then frustrated by the timidity of the labour leadership, in the south. In 1918 there were 150,000 trade unionists in an electorate of just under two million, or 13%. While some of these trade unionists were no doubt influenced by syndicalist ideas and the writings of James Connolly, a far bigger factor in trade union membership, north and south, was British legislation, which provided for de facto trade union recognition in a number of economic sectors, including, most significantly, agriculture. While the bulk of agricultural labourers joined the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, significant numbers in the north joined its northern counterpart, the National Amalgamated Union of Labour. When the wartime legislation was dismantled and the economic boom ended in the early 1920s, numbers fell dramatically and trade union membership did not recover until the 1960s. The Bolshevik Revolution undoubtedly inspired many individual Irish trade unionists but they never comprised anything remotely resembling a critical mass that could change the fundamentally conservative nature of Irish society. Rather, the question of how to deal with the conscription crisis reinforced the split in labour based on confessional lines.

Rayner dismisses the preponderance of Catholic clergy on the platforms at strike meetings as ‘circumstantial’. Rather it indicates the real power relationship at this critical juncture in a mass mobilisation of the Irish people, as does the fact that it was the clergy who collected anti-conscription pledges at these meetings and who controlled most of the funds collected to oppose conscription.

Far from the general strike against conscription and the following general strikes demonstrating the potential for socialist revolution, two of the other three were in support of republican prisoners on hunger strike and refusing to transport British military equipment and troops during the War of Independence. All these strikes were objectively subordinating workers’ interests, sometimes at high personal cost, to the struggle for independence. The fourth and final general strike against militarism took place in 1922, after Partition, and it is further confirmation of Labour’s subordinate role to militant nationalism during this period in that it was unsuccessful.—Yours etc.,



Sir,—Regarding Padraig Yeates’s article, ‘A sheep in wolf’s clothing no match for the wise serpent’ (HI 26.2, March/April 2018), reference was made to the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party treasurer D.R. Campbell’s unapologetic refusal to sign the declaration against conscription, because he maintained that ‘There is no fear of conscription. My opinion is that it is less likely to come now than ever’. With this statement he may not have been wrong. There is the argument that there never was any intention of applying conscription to Ireland. The purpose in including a clause extending conscription to Ireland was to appease British public opinion, which was successfully achieved. The British public believed that they had suffered to a greater extent than the people of Ireland, who, although a part of the empire, were not contributing enough by way of manpower but were reaping the benefits of the war. There is also evidence that the only way in which conscription could have been applied to Ireland was by order of council as provided for in the Military Service Act 1918, and such an order was postponed twice in May and September 1918; two months later the war was over. The Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Féin were against conscription, but the latter had opposed recruitment for the British army, and they would have benefited from the implementation of the former. The threat therefore drove people into the arms of Sinn Féin.—Yours etc.,



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