The anti-conscription general strike

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—Padraig Yeates’s ‘A sheep in wolf’s clothing no match for the wise serpent’ (HI 26.2, March/April 2018) asks ‘how far was the ITUC&LP leading the [anti-conscription] campaign, and how far was it being led?’ but does not answer. Though its conclusion implies that the strike benefited the Catholic Church, the narrative reveals only the circumstantial attendance of its clergy on the platforms of strike meetings, and their control of the all-class anti-conscription movement (which organised the pledging but not the strike), but no evidence to sustain the idea that it inspired the stoppage.

The title itself is misleading. That Irish Labour sidelined the independence struggle as a whole is no secret. This did not make it a sheep in wolf’s clothing. A more adequate metaphor is that of Walt Disney’s ‘Sheepish Lion’, a being of great natural potential swaddled by its immediate associates.

History is a process, and revolutionary conditions hasten that process for many of its participants. Yeates does not look at how this affected Irish Labour in this period: he looks at the Church, the nationalists, the colonial government and the British trade unions, but not the Irish workers who made the strike a success. Had they been examined, they would have been seen to have just started a major expansion in numbers and consciousness, one advanced by the anti-conscription stoppage, far more than any help it gave the Church, and one that would continue until at least the end of the Anglo-Irish War. O’Brien’s ITGWU was the most radical of all the Congress and Party’s affiliates. By April 1918 its membership had more than doubled in the previous year, but workers were still unorganised in such future militant areas of Ireland as the Suir Valley. This helps explain O’Brien’s recognition for the need for a cross-class alliance against conscription; on the Suir the strike had to be organised by the local Volunteers. It explains, too, the nature of the message sent from the strike meeting platforms.

However, there had been growth in consciousness along with organisation. The chairman of the Limerick strike meeting, and of the trades council, Seán Cronin, is an example. In February 1915 he had denounced the influence of Dublin socialists in his city. At a Mayday celebration in 1918, he could declare that the strike had shown what class ran Ireland. In April 1919 he was heading the Limerick Soviet, proudly accepting the inspiration of Moscow socialists. This was part of the process, including three more national general strikes, of which the anti-conscription strike was at the start.

Despite divisions, the Church, like the secular political groups, republican, nationalist and unionist, were agreed in fearing Labour and played a defensive game towards it until 1921. None of these serpents had any long-term plan other than keeping the class enemy at bay. That they won in the end was because Labour’s own leaders were equally afraid of their followers’ radicalism.—Yours etc.,




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