Labour in the New Irish Parliament
From Forward, July 4, 1914.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
What is to be the position of labour in the first Irish Parliament to judge by the written opinion of many of our friends we would be inclined to believe that the representation of labour in that Parliament would be a certainty, and that it would not be a mere nominal representation, but rather on a large, and as one writer has said, a dominating scale. If this were so, then we might truly felicitate the labour movement in Ireland upon its marvellous progress, and felicitate the Irish working class upon the keenness of their insight and the alertness of their intelligence.
Writing as one who has a close inside knowledge of the Irish labour movement, and also as one who does believe in the keen political insight of the Irish workers as a whole, I yet feel constrained to warn the readers of Forward that the real outlook in Ireland is not by any means so rosy and full of immediate promise as our sanguine friends are prone to believe. It is somewhat of an uncertainty whether labour will be represented in the first Irish Parliament at all.
There are many reasons why this is an uncertainty. One of the greatest is the financial reason. Most people are of the opinion that the Irish Parliament will at least not be a retrograde institution, or elected upon a franchise or after a method held elsewhere in these islands to be antiquated. That any forward step taken elsewhere will at least be presumed for the benefit of the Irish democracy. It is therefore somewhat of a shock to many to learn that under the new Home Rule Constitution, no provision is made for payment of members of Parliament but it is left to be dealt with by the new Irish legislature. Thus in the first Irish Parliament the members will be unpaid, and as the chief concern of that Parliament will be that of finding the ways and means to keep itself financially afloat, and to soothe the susceptibilities of its critics, there is more than a strong probability that the members will remain unpaid in future legislatures also. Had the present Government or the present labour party in the House of Commons done what the Irish workers had a right to expect that they should do, the chances of labour representation in the Irish Parliament would have been immensely increased by making provision for the maintenance of Irish labour members, and thus making smoother the path of the Irish labour party. But no such provision was made.
The present Home Rule party had and have no desire to see labour in the Irish Parliament represented by an independent party of workers. Representing as they do the capitalist class, the publicans, and the gombeen men or money-lenders of rural Ireland as well as the lowest class of slum landlords in the cities, they dread as they dread retribution, the advent of men or women with ideas of regeneration and social emancipation for Ireland. They do not want anything that might help the victims of their friends and relatives to put a legislative curb to their slave-driving and sweating. Of course that is not the reason they alleged. Oh, no! They alleged that they “considered that the Irish Parliament should have control over its own finance, and they objected to the English Parliament limiting its powers in advance.” And of course the British labour party swallowed this yarn, oblivious of the fact that the English Parliament was limiting the powers of the Irish Parliament in a score of ridiculous and even fatally harmful ways with the full consent of their Home Rule colleagues, and that it was only when it came to increasing the power of the Irish democracy that the Home Rule party objected to the interference of the English Parliament.
An indication by the British labour party that they meant to insist upon payment of members being incorporated in the Home Rule constitution, as a principle that public services should be paid for by the public, would have made the situations infinitely easier for Irish labour, but no such indication was forthcoming.
In every Home Rule speech the precedent of the British colonies is cited as an argument in favour of the measure, but the democratic spirit in which the colonial constitutions are framed was deliberately shut out by the framers of the Home Rule Bill. Whereas the colonial constitutions aim at giving power to the democracy, the Home Rule constitution aims at restricting the power of the democracy. And now there are to be still further attempts at restriction and divisions, in order to please the Bourbons of Ulster, who learn nothing and forget nothing.
Added to this hampering restriction upon the Irish democracy’s choice of elected members, there is the fact that there is yet no fund available with which Irish labour constituencies can be contested. Resolutions are all very well, and class feeling is an excellent thing, but in the electoral world neither of these can manifest themselves without the sinews of war. Now if there is one thing the Irish labour movement is at present wanting in, it is finance for electoral contests. The Dublin labour party fight all municipal and other local contests, as does every other district of nationalist Ireland where the new influence is making itself felt, but to do even that is a severe strain upon their resources.
That they could with their present limited resources grapple with the infinitely greater cost of Parliamentary elections is almost unthinkable. In the north the trade unions are for the most part content to play the orange game, and are as bodies merely passive allies of the capitalist-landlord faction in warring upon the progressive movement. Thus the imminence of the Home Rule elections brings into greater prominence the need for some kind of action being taken in Ireland and elsewhere to equip the labour movement with the necessary funds to assault some of the seats in the Home Rule Parliament.
Without the invigorating presence of an alert and independent labour party in its midst the Irish House of Commons will be for years a most reactionary and anti-democratic assembly, setting a bad example to Tories and reactionists everywhere. It will be obsessed with the idea of placating the reactionary elements in Ulster, and thus of justifying itself against their aspersions. What this means you can best understand when you realise that Ulster is the most capitalist part of Ireland, that the game will be to represent every bit of labour legislation which menaces capitalist profits as an attack upon the industries of Ulster, and that the fear of this cry will cause the new Irish Government, and every non-labour element in Parliament, to oppose all social legislation. Only a strong and determined labour group, with a true revolutionary outlook, will be able to withstand this cry, force forward progressive legislation and combat reactionary measures.
The dice are heavily loaded against us in Ireland. They are loaded by the evil traditions of the past, by the cowardice of many working class elements in the north especially, by the awful poverty of the country, by the ignorant obstinacy of the capitalist class, by sectarian animosities, by unscrupulous politicians, by a lying press.
We can only hope to carry our flag to victory by securing the aid of all those workers everywhere who desire to see an effective force carrying the green flag of an Irish regiment whilst unconditionally under the red flag of the proletarian army.
Top of the page
Last updated on 14.8.2003