The anti-conscription general strike

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—No doubt Padraig Yeates (HI 26.4, July/August 2018, Letters) did not mean to imply that the Catholic Church inspired the anti-conscription strike. However, he stimulates belief that he did mean that by his title and conclusions, as well as by his muddling up of the strike and general anti-conscription campaign (the clergy being active in the latter but not the former) and, of course, strike and ‘independence struggle as a whole’.

In any case, he should read what he tries to answer before starting his riposte. He knows well that over decades this writer has distinguished working-class consciousness arising from trade union growth from its more developed form to be nurtured only by a politically conscious working-class party. He knows, too, the writer’s view that without such a party it was easy to keep Labour in a subordinate role since the Rising. Nor does this writer’s letter (HI 26.3, May/June 2018) reverse these. We do agree that Labour came to be like this; we disagree as to how it did so.

For Padraig Yeates, this writer ‘produces no evidence to support his own assertion that “Irish Labour sidelined the independence struggle as a whole”’. He seeks to refute that assertion by remarking the readiness of the Labour leaders to ‘follow the lead’ of the nationalists in opposing conscription. This readiness was, in fact, the first move in support of a national issue made by Labour since before the Rising (the Rising itself did not, of course, involve the full organised Labour movement). The Labour leaders cherry-picked their movement’s interventions in the national struggle when their rank-and-file (not Nationalists or Republicans) demanded it, save where they considered that an action might involve them too deeply. The anti-conscription stoppage was unique in being the leaders’ initiative.

This does not mean that the said rank-and-file was simply nationalist. In its conduct and language, there were signs of a consciousness that could have been developed by a revolutionary socialist party. This writer has quoted the example of Seán Cronin of Limerick, but many other workers took initiatives, forming soviets in defiance of the Church’s condemnation. What is more, many of these moves were stimulated by their class’s response to British arbitrariness.

Padraig Yeates alleges that the strike deepened the division between unionist ‘north’ and nationalist ‘south’ within the Irish labour movement. Any such increase was tiny compared to what existed. The major groups of Protestant workers in unions had, at best, a semi-detached attitude to Irish Labour. Unionist farmworkers were unlikely to join the ITGWU. The gap might have been bridged had Ireland’s Labour movement showed willingness to take power from capital, green or orange; it didn’t.

Finally, Tadhg Moloney (HI 26.4, July/August 2018, Letters) is correct to say that the Military Service Act of 1918 was not intended to be applied to Ireland; its Irish provisions were aimed at sweetening conscription for the British workers, whom it covered in greater numbers than the Irish. Once on the statute book, however, it could be applied at any time, and the Tories believed in conscription and dominated the government. Had the fighting dragged into 1919, they might have attempted to apply the Act to Ireland.—Yours etc.,



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