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The Stagnation of Irish Labour during the Period of Nationalism, 1916-1922

The Stagnation of Irish Labour during the Period of Nationalism, 1916-1922

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by John Pleasants. Originally submitted for British and Irish Nationalisms at McGill University, with lecturer Prof. Brian Lewis in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by John Pleasants. Originally submitted for British and Irish Nationalisms at McGill University, with lecturer Prof. Brian Lewis in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1
The Stagnation of Irish Labour during the Period of Nationalism, 1916-1922
Key Words: Ireland, Politics, Labour, Nationalism, Socialism Abstract: Dealing with Irish politics during the period of Nationalism and Independence, this essay seeksto account for the role and eventual marginalization of the Irish Labour Party. The purpose of research was to determine how independence and Irish governance affected the cause of the
 Labour Party and its constituents. While the plight of Ireland’s lower classes was a rhetorical 
rationale for independence from the United Kingdom, the political outcome of nationalist effortsdid not result in an expanded role for the Labour Party. Ultimately much of the responsibilitylies with the Labour Party and their inability to consistently co-opt and take part in nationalist  politics. Initially espousing a more consistently socialist platform under the leadership of JamesConnolly, following his death in the Easter Rising of 1916 the Labour Party underwent a varietyof changes in the years leading up to Independence and the end of the Anglo-Irish War. Eventually conceding to some nationalist interests, best exemplified by its separation from thestronger Labour Party in Unionist Belfast, the Labour Party vacillated under inconsistent leadership and failed to adequately serve its members. The separation of the Labour Party intodifferent factions and literature such as L
iam O’Flaherty’s
The Informer demonstrate how by themid-1920s the cause of Labour had been greatly weakened during the struggle for independence.
 Labour’s failure to consistently participate in nationalist politics had long 
-lasting effects on thestrength of 
the Labour movement in Ireland and served to set back the interests of Ireland’s
working classes.
A tendency amongst historians of Irish nationalism during the Anglo-Irish war and civilwar is to understand distinct groups as exclusively nationalist or unionist, or as absolutesupporters of an Irish republic or of the Free State. But groups that advocated for the rights of 
Ireland’s oppressed classes are often tangential to histories of Ireland’s national movements. The
Irish Labour Party is often lost amidst traditional nationalist historiographies of this era, eventhough it represented a large class of people whose interests were concerned with ending foreign
as well as indigenous forms of oppression. Too often is the Labour Party dismissed as “petty and
self-
interested” during the era of independence in the civil war, when compared with the
 
2
“‘apolitical,’ romantic patriotism” of mainstream nationalist movements.
1
Yet the main reasonLabour is often overlooked historiographically is not because of its neutrality on the nationalquestion, but because of its own inability to engage coherently in nationalist debate.
The Labour Party’s mismanagement of the national question from 1916 to 1923 resulted
in its secondary status in national histories of Ireland and in the marginalisation of working class
interests. It was not that Ireland’s working classes were more concerned with nationalism thanwith their rights as labourers; it was the political vacillations of the Irish Labour Party’s
leadership that damaged their ability to achieve pro-labour reforms and make a lasting impact inthe new Irish state. In spite of its strong theoretical foundation in the works of the socialistrepublican James Connolly, Irish Labour after 1916 facilitated its own marginalisation through
fractious policies and inconsistencies that allowed “nationalist obsession with ending foreignrule” to “blind” its oppressed people to the continued injustices of class discrimination.
2
 The development of Irish labour power in the post-World War One era should havetranslated into a dominant political role for the Labour Party in the struggle for independence andin the formation of the new Irish state. The creation of political structures for Irish labourorganizations over the early 20
th
-
century, such as the Irish Transport and General Workers’
Union (ITGWU), formed in 1908 and the Irish Labour Party in 1912, coupled with massivegrowth in the number of trade union members from 100,000 to 250,000 from 1917 to 1920demonstrated immense potential for a party of united workers.
3
 
The party’s platform was also
definitively moderate in limiting its membership to those who were members of trade unions,
1
W.K. Anderson,
 James Connolly and the Irish Left 
(Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994), 117.
2
Erica Benner,
 Really Existing Nationalisms: A Post-Communist View from Marx and Engels
(Oxford: ClarendonPress, 1995), 193.
3
Emmet
O’Connor,
 Reds and the Greens: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals: 1919-1943
(Dublin:University College Dublin Press, 2004), 13.
 
3
and eschewed any radical “socialist ethos” that its leaders feared could “hinder the fledglin
g
 party.”
4
The Labour Party focused its attention on addressing inequalities in Irish society throughadvocating
labourism
, which involved a “restructuring of the economy whereby the state, on
behalf of the community, has control of the means of production
, distribution and exchange.”
5
 Nationalism, though not a principle component of Labour ideology, had a presence in theParty from an early stage. James Connolly, one of the main intellectuals and political theorists
 behind Ireland’s Labour movement before
the war of independence, militantly advocated for a
united Labour stance on nationalism and socialism. Considered a “Marxist
-republican
revolutionary” who had the ability to crossover to mainstream Labour politics, Connolly was
critical of those forms of nationalism that were devoid of a class element.
6
In
 Labour in Ireland 
,
one of Connolly’s many written works on the intersection of nationalism and socialism, he saw
the right of national self-determination as an integral component of improving the condition of 
the working class. Espousing “ ‘integrative socialism’” Connolly understood national
independence as a positive only as far as it benefited the working class of Ireland.
7
He warned
that workers must be wary of national groups because supporters of “n
ational freedom might co-
exist in the same person with a vehement support of industrial despotism of landlord tyranny.”
8
 
Erica Benner’s
 Really Existing Nationalisms
highlights the definitive socialist policy onnationalism, which was embodied by Connolly. Post-1848, the theories of Marx and Engels
 became more nuanced and pragmatic, changing from a belief that nationalists should “adjusttheir goals to those of revolutionaries,” towards an understanding that national goals were often a
4
Niamh Puirséil,
The Irish Labour Party 1922-73,
(Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007),
 
7.
5
 
 Ibid.,
6
6
 
 Ibid.,
8
7
 
Helga Woggon, “Interpreting James Connolly: 1916
-
1923,” in
 Irish Politics and the Working Class, 1830-1945
,ed. Fintan Lane and Donal O Drisceoil (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005),
 
174.
8
James Connolly,
 Labour in Ireland 
(Dublin: Maunsel & Company Ltd., 1920), 267.

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