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Book Review:100 years of Liberty Hall

D R O’Connor Lysaght (ed) ILHS Dublin 2013, €10

Reviewed by John McAnulty

6 July 2014

When one picks up a history of trade unionism, especially one with Liberty Hall Dublin as its subject, normally one expects a story of heroism and working class advance.

Today such expectations are overturned by a burning need for explanation. How is it that the living standards and rights of the working class have been thrown so sharply into reverse? How can the trade union leadership explain their role in enforcing the austerity?

The editor, in his introduction, puts the issues to the fore. He is failed by many of his contributors, who not only fail to answer the questions but often seem unaware that there are any questions to be answered.

And yet they do answer. Besides the editor’s analysis is the unselfconscious accounts by SIPTU officials of a closed world where they claim to represent the interests of the working class but in fact end up representing their own interests. Then there are examinations of leading figures in the early movement that, through a glass darkly, touch on some of the political issues in the Labour movement, often taken as personal disagreements. Finally there are political analyses.

The book is organized in sections with accounts by officials, specific accounts by women officials, analytical articles focusing on the union founders and attempts at overview.


The first account, about the 1982 Clover Meats disputes, gives an unselfconscious account of the prehistory of social partnership. A draconian interpretation of the law meant that workers were refused benefit when laid off. The answer was clientelism. The politicians were lobbied and a deal was done. The price was the union settling on Clover Meats terms. The law remained unchanged. Other accounts document close alliances between union officials and Fianna Fail and joint negotiations with foreign firms to establish "sweetheart deals." 

Where there are accounts of grassroots activity, it is in conflict with a bureaucracy. Even radical voices found themselves embedded in an environment of cross-class collaboration to which there appeared to be no outside.

An interesting account detailed sectarian tensions in Donegal, to which the union responded by attempted neutrality. The fact that this neutrality was imposed against the wishes of many members was underlined by a plea for recognition of humanitarian support offered to nationalist refugees during the '68 pogrom. The official neutrality is significant as it was the response to loyalism by the trade union movement nationally and a considerable factor in emasculating the working class as a political force. 

Women in the union

Some of the accounts are misnamed. They provide detailed and useful historical accounts of women's oppression without dealing with the trade union movement. Others are bean counting exercises, reducing the issue to one of representation in union structures. Even when the new feminist activists join with union officers the pattern remains the same: a description of oppression, a call for representation but no programme of liberation that would have united the issues.

The Pioneers 

Another facet of the anthology is historical accounts of the founding figures. Successful in terms of historical research, it does not link well to current decay. To too great an extent it recounts personal differences or, where political differences are detailed, it remains within the remit of trade union politics. For example, much is made of the conflict between Irish-based and British based unions, but the underlying issue, the failure to build a Workers Republic, is not addressed. Strangely no-one tackles the role of the foremost leaders, James Connolly.

One contribution that ties many of the issues together is the account of young Jim Larkin by Manus O'Riordan. However what he presents as a gradual evolution was actually a wrenching discontinuity. The rise of Stalinism crushed the young Communist movement in Ireland. People like young Jim were forced out and moved to the right to consolidate Irish Labourism. The two currents came together in a reformist "Irish road to socialism" and, when Labour failed at the polls, formed a long-standing alliance with Fianna Fail. The high point of the alliance, was a National Industrial and Economic Council. The younger Larkin explained this as:

 "not building capitalism. This is showing the way our present system must evolve and must be changed into a more equitable and social system." 

Who can look at this germ of social partnership and the devastation that surrounds us now and not see how reformism has crippled Irish Labour?  


Contributor Niamh Puirséil explains the political evolution of SIPTU as hedging its bets. It had good relations with Fianna Fail and could deal with Labour in the coalition when that replaced a Fianna Fail government. 

What is seen as pragmatism is, in the view of the reviewer, a reactionary nationalism. The opposite of James Connolly's revolutionary fight for self-determination and working class independence, it tied the unions, Labour, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in an eternal interlinked Mobius strip, subordinating the working class to the interests of Irish capitalism and imperialism. 

Diarmaid Ferriter provides an overview of the 100 year history. Again we have a concentration on personality and a carefully crafted defence of the reformist inheritors who came after the defeated revolution. He does focus in on the central issue of social partnership and includes a report of the standard defence of the bureaucracy – that this was the mechanism that saved us from Thatcherism.   

The results of partnership are all around us. The Ireland that was “spared Thatcherism” is devastated, with the working class far weaker than their British counterparts. In part that is due to relative strength of the class in the two countries, but the level of devastation is best explained by the unrelenting collaboration of the workers leaders. 

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