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On the democratic programme of the first Dail

(Speech by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght commenting on Brendan Halligan’s Paper on the Democratic Programme delivered at the Irish Labour History Society after its Annual General Meeting in the Oak Room of the Dublin Mansion House on 9th May 2009.)

Brendan Halligan has given a most interesting and, in places, insightful paper. I agree with him particularly in his opening remark that we tend to filter our interpretation of history through our own experience and that we must acknowledge this tendency.  I must add, too, that if my interpretation of this subject differs from his, it is because my experience of working class activity differs from his, as well.

His presentation challenges the traditional interpretation of his subject on three counts. Firstly, he refutes the view that the Declaration was a sop to the Labour Party as a consolation prize for obeying Sinn Fein’s directive ‘Labour Must wait.’ Secondly, he substitutes for this the idea that Labour abstained from the 1918 general election out of a wish not to split the national movement in its time of extreme struggle. Thirdly, he attacks the idea that Labour’s abstention hurt it when it did begin to contest general elections from 1922. There is something in all his propositions.

Certainly, the first of them is wholly true. As I have shown in Saothar, ‘Labour Must Wait’ was not used by Sinn Fein, but attributed to it particularly by Joseph Devlin and the Freeman’s Journal in an attempt to alienate Sinn Fein’s prospective support in the working class. Indeed, Sinn Fein was willing to form a coalition with Labour, were Labour willing to pledge its loyalty to Dail Eireann.

So why did Labour not do so? The answer seems to be that, as an heterogeneous political body, then literally identical with the Trade Union Congress,  it feared to split not the national struggle but itself by making too open a commitment to one form of that struggle, even to what was becoming obviously its majority expression. Labour had seen what Connolly’s  commitment had done to the organization of his union, and though that union was prepared to trade on his name in recruiting members at a time of revolutionary nationalist upsurge, it was not prepared to imperil its growth by copying his action too closely.  With its fellow Congress affiliates it followed the strategy mapped by its leading surviving theorist, Thomas Johnson, at its Annual Meeting in Sligo four months after the Easter Rising that it should leave consistent participation in the national struggle to the nationalists, and content itself with publishing ‘practical programmes’ of social and economic reforms, entering the national political field only where immediate and obvious democratic or humanitarian matters were being infringed. Labour did not put country before class, nor should it have done so; its mistake lay in its interpretation of its class’ interests.

A more fruitful area from which to give Labour kudos is that of the origins and nature of the Democratic Programme. Brendan follows it in ascribing its inspiration to Padraic Pearse’s ‘Sovereign People’. However, that work was preceded by an article by James Connolly which laid out the socio-economic principles that would appear in Pearse’s work, in the Easter Week Proclamation and in the First Dail’s Programme. In his Workers’ Republic of 15 January 1916, Connolly wrote its front page article, ‘Economic Conscription’, in which he set out an economic programme for ‘the first days of freedom.’ Land, transport and the means of production owned by opponents of the revolution were to be at the disposal of the new republic.

This was not a socialist programme; such a programme requires world wide hegemony before it can be applied. Nor was it a programme for the workers’ republic envisaged by Connolly; not only would such an entity have been created according to a programme designed more specifically to ensure working class control of the economy, but it would have meant a state centred on a still undeveloped trade union movement.

The fact was that Connolly was determined to carry out his internationalist duty by intervening to end the war by stimulating popular unrest out of which the workers could seize state power. Though his prospective republican allies feared that he might lead the 300 members of his Citizen Army to stage a futile putsch, he had no illusion that his class was strong enough to seize power for itself. Rather, he hoped to start a revolutionary process in alliance with Ireland’s revolutionary nationalists on terms in which the workers could strengthen their position to take power for themselves. What he was proposing might best be described as state capitalism. Within days of Connolly publishing his article, his economic proposals were accepted by the Military Council of the I.R.B. Pearse expressed his support in ‘The Sovereign People’ in March. The next month, the Proclamation of the Republic incorporated their principles.

What is important is that they were the principles of a programme for a front of revolutionary nationalists and socialists. This basis on which they were to operate did not apply when a new expanded Sinn Fein held its convention, its first Ard Fheis, in October 1917, eighteen months after the Rising. Here Arthur Griffith, who had founded the original Sinn Fein on a programme of Anglo-Irish dual monarchy and had sat out the Rising, agreed to raise his sights to demand a republic. However, the proposed economic and social reforms agreed were of the unexceptional capitalist kind that Griffith had advocated before 1916: a protected capitalist economy, improved pensions, public works for the unemployed rather than the poor law, regulation of  finance companies and a system of national granaries to cut the price of bread. More positively, the land question would be ‘investigated and a ‘living wage’ (would any party advocate openly a ‘starvation wage’, even then?) be established. On the other hand, British trade unions would be banned.

Some of these proposals compare favourably with the social and economic policies followed by twenty-six county governments after 1922. There was, nonetheless nothing comparable to Connolly and Pearse’s principle that private property should be held subject to the pleasure of the people  as an whole. It is true that many Sinn Feiners considered themselves socialist, but their socialism was most influenced by the theory of the co-operative organiser, George Russell, whose recently published National Being taught that the co-operative commonwealth could be achieved by persuading the capitalist class peacefully to surrender its property.

That Sinn Fein never got beyond that was partly due to Labour’s general acceptance of Johnson’s line that it should leave the republican struggle to the republicans. William O’Brien did join the committee that would bring together the nationalist groups that would form the new Sinn Fein, but his Labour colleagues forced him to leave it. On top of this, there was the fact that in October 1917 the difference in size between the republican and organised labour movements was as wide as it had ever been, and in the republicans’ favour. Obviously Labour found it difficult to capitalise on the Rising like the Republicans. At the same time, from December 1916, it was hit by the immediate results of David Lloyd George’ new British government’s readiness to impose ite own form of state capitalism. Railways, mills, mines, engineering and public utilities were all taken over by the colonial state. The farm labourers were given a minimum wage. In the longer run, this gave the workers confidence to make demands beyond what that state would grant; for most of 1917, it tended to dull their radicalism.

This change in the situation was the reason why the Democratic Declaration of the First Dail harked back to the 1916 Proclamation  rather than the 1917 Convention. Within weeks of the latter event, two occurrences stimulated revived working class militancy. William O’Brien announced a national campaign against low wages and, probably more importantly, Russia’s October Revolution showed the world, including Ireland, that the workers of a country could take state power. Support for Labour grew steadily and escalated after it had organised its successful anti-conscription general strike in April 1918. (O’Brien was urged to run as anti-Conscription candidate in the subsequent Cavan East bye-election, but refused.) When the general election was announced for December, Labour was in a strong position to field candidates.

The trouble was that the national question could not be avoided. It divided Labour’s affiliates between home rulers and republicans. The immediate cause of dispute was the question as to which assembly Labour’s elected M.P.s should attend: the Westminster parliament or Sinn Fein’s projected Dail Eireann. For Labour’s leadership this was a tactical question but for the nationalist parties it was of decisive importance, as it was to many rank and file trade unionists. Labour had failed to assert itself politically since the Rising. Now it found the nationalist camp polarised on the abstention issue. It tried to make an electoral pact with Sinn Fein, but that party was not prepared to surrender seats to any candidates without firm pledges of loyalty to the Dail, such as would alienate many trade unionist home rulers, to say nothing of supporters of the union.  Labour’s last chance of fudging the issue by concentrating on pacifism ended with the collapse of the central Alliance and the prospective end of the war. It withdrew from the contest outside Protestant Belfast.

Yet Labour was too strong for Sinn Fein to ignore it as it had ignored it in October 1917. Communism was on the march all over Europe; it was an obvious rival to revolutionary nationalism.  It had to be appeased. Thomas Johnson was called to draft the Dail’s democratic programme. His draft was an attempt to compensate for his party’s lack of representation.  It was to the left of Connolly and Pearse’1916 works as well as to the Proclamation. It asserted not only the supreme right of the nation to seize private property without compensation, and its duty to organise trade unions and co-operatives, to restrict competition and aim at the abolition of classes.

None of this could be accepted by Sinn Fein. Nonetheless, the amended programme did provide for the subordination of private property rights to the common good. To that extent, it was a move to the left of the 1917 Ard Fheis and enabled Johnson to feel satisfied with it. As Brendan Halligan has said, the municipal elections of January 1920 left Labour Ireland’s second largest urban party. 

What he does not admit is that Britain’s excalation of the war during the subsequent months polarised Irish opinion around Sinn Fein. In the county and rural elections of the summer, Labour came fourth behind Sinn Fein, unionists and even old Home Rulers. Then, at the beginning of 1921, the post-war boom ended and with it utopian hopes of peaceful social change. With the truce, the bosses went on the offensive to complete the pre-war tasks of Alfred Dobbyn and William Martin Murphy backed by the Dail Cabinet. After the treaty, the Anti-Treatyites were neither able nor willing to benefit from popular resistance to the social counter-revolution. 

These circumstances affected Labour more than its abstentionism. Though it is unclear how far Labour suffered from that strategy. To a certain extent it might have gained from not having being part of a decreasingly popular Dail. On the other hand, it might have used its role as loyal opposition to give socio-economic resistance a political centre. It might, too, have been able to overcome the syndicalist opposition to any parliamentary action that prevented it running candidates in several constituencies in its first twenty-six county general election. Even so, Labour won 21.5% of the total vote: a share that it has never achieved since. This was partly because some constituencies likely to be most hostile to it were not contested. Perhaps more important was the fact that its propaganda implied that it could deliver a superior type of republic - a workers’ republic - without the immediate and terrible war prophesied by the two factions of the old Sinn Fein.

By the time of the 1923 general election, this was revealed as an illusion. Labour had served merely as loyal opposition to the Saorstat government that was attacking workers’ living standards and suppressing land agitations. Its support moved to the republicans who had been fighting the forces of that government. Labour was returned not as third but as fourth party.

The Democratic Programme of the First Dail had been one for a revolutionary United Front.  Without one of the parties to that front having the clout to defend its side, it remained on paper.


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