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SIPTU and the Labour Party remember Larkin - but forget everything he did!

View from a union activist

1 February 2022

Senator Marie Sherlock from the Irish Labour Party speaks at the commemoration
to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Jim Larkin.

The recent huddle around Jim Larkin's grave on the 75th anniversary of his death made for a pitiful sight.  At a time when a workers’ fightback is needed more than ever not many attended a commemoration for a labour leader that had customarily addressed crowds in the tens of thousands.  But that wasn't the worst part.  That came when the political speeches began!

Joe Cunningham who presides over Siptu, the largest labour organisation in the country, led the speeches by decrying the “social obscenity” of a low wage economy.  Ireland, he said “is a low-paid economy – one of the worst in the EU – with hundreds of thousands working on precarious contracts,”.  All true.

Indeed, again he was correct when he said that “People’s experience of solidarity during the pandemic has created growing antipathy towards exploitative employers and the general public has begun to question why people in essential roles are paid so little”.  Well, here's a clue as to why they are paid so little.  Siptu leaders forced their members to cross the nurses picket lines when they went on strike for more wages only a few summers ago, or has Joe forgotten?

From the tone of the speech, it could also (almost) be momentarily forgotten that Siptu has been in partnership with various governments for decades and has repeatedly agreed to keeping the demands of Irish labour within the parameters of the 'fiscal space'.  Maybe he could do something now to put that right, like take action right across the board perhaps.  Maybe a campaign of support for health workers, something in the design of Larkin and Connolly’s Fiery Cross tour would be appropriate perhaps.  The wider working class deserves to hear more of their plans.  Please excuse the sarcasm but its unavoidable!

Larkin, he said, “organised the low-paid workers of his day, who worked in precarious conditions.”  True, but that was the minimum that Larkin did.  He did not just organise them and then sit back and collect the union subscriptions, that was the main bone of contention he had with the arch betrayer Sexton.  Larkin fought like hell.  For Larkin organising workers meant organising strikes, it meant organising other workers to support those strikes and it meant running foul of the state.  It took a toll on his health and he ended up in prison.  The determination and self-sacrifice exhibited by Larkin is nowhere present in today's union leadership as they stand by his grave and wring their hands over conditions they themselves have participated in creating.

And then came the Labour Party which apparently has a spokesperson for 'workers rights' - who would have guessed.  As we know from the Apollo House occupation neither the Labour Party nor our unions would support the homeless taking direct action to put a roof over their heads - in case it threatened their finances in the latter case.  But that didn't stop the Labour Party shedding crocodile tears at Larkin's grave over the state of housing in Ireland.  At the time of the Apollo house occupation, it didn't stop Labour minister Alan Kelly from weeping salt tears over his inability to help the homeless; “the constitution” he cried, “the constitution”!  Have they forgotten today that they were in government?  Very few share their political amnesia!

But Ms Sherlock's finest moment came when she celebrated the Labour Party's visit to Derry on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  She pontificated that “A Day like today should highlight the absolute necessity of resolving the conflict over Northern Ireland on the basis of consent”!  Now she is clearly aware that the “consent” she is talking about is the consent of the Unionist bigots that Larkin detested.  This “consent” - she carried on with her dishonest amalgam - was “a concept that Jim Larkin had subscribed to all his life” - it was Larkin she said “who had the unique experience and insight from uniting the cause of Catholic and Protestant workers in the great dock strike in Belfast of 1907.”

Yes, Larkin fought to unite workers in Belfast but it was in the teeth of determined opposition from the Unionist reactionaries so beloved of today’s Labour Party and every other anti-working-class conservative in Ireland.  Larkin required no consent from them!  He detested the sectarian bigots that scabbed on the dockers, that constantly used the Telegraph to accuse him of being a “Fenian” and the NUDL of being a “Catholic Union”, and he detested the “many advocates of bigotry and intolerance” that attacked workers unity and, in the end, drove syndicalism out of Belfast and pursued it as far south as Dundalk in 1907.  Has the Labour Party forgotten that during the 1907 strike there was a British Army incursion and murders of strike supporters on the Falls Road that was designed to divide workers and label the strike as a “fenian” plot - and that it took place with the full support of the Unionist employing class and their reactionary Press?  Have they forgotten that Stormont's Unionists were fully behind the British army in Derry 50 years ago?  Now the same Unionist reaction must be begged for a “consent” that will never come in order to progress towards an Irish democracy.  The notion is beyond contempt!

The Labour Party buys in to the sectarianism, it draws a straight equals sign between the Unionist employers detested by Larkin and the section of the Protestant working class which fought so hard for Larkinism in 1907 and who were victimised when the strike ended and labelled and expelled as “Rotten Prods” along with the Catholic workers in the pogroms of 1912 and 1920.  Failing to differentiate puts all Protestant workers in the same reactionary bag as the Unionist parties and employers who oppressed them; in the Labour Party's book they are all the same, a political approach that is the very epitome of sectarianism.

In Belfast Larkin fought against the Unionist bigotry that the Labour Party today seeks the approval of, he relentlessly organised strikes and sympathy action and he didn't advocate that his members cross pickets put up by other workers.  This is what Larkin is remembered for but as the speakers standing over his grave cynically tried to relaunch themselves as “the left” in time for the next election they appeared to forget these parts, along with large parts of their own organisations' recent history.  It won't work, too many remember, but that memory must lead to action and to a new left resurgence that will clear all these pretenders away and replace them with class struggle socialism, the kind that Larkin might recognise, should he ever stop spinning in his grave.

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