‘Irishmen need not apply’: the failure of a Four Nations labour movement

‘Irishmen need not apply’: the failure of a Four Nations labour movement

As the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign divided some on the Left as to where the best interests of the working class lay, Mike Mecham (St Mary’s University, Twickenham) describes how this same issue was discussed more than a century earlier as some sought a Four Nations labour movement rather than fragmentation.

 During the years 1890-1914 a small window of opportunity existed for a Four Nations labour movement.  Two prominent figures of the time advocated it:  Scotsman James Keir Hardie and the lesser known, Belfast born, William Walker.   Hardie, a founding father of the British labour movement, epitomised the Four Nations labour politician. Irishman Walker, a significant figure in the Irish labour movement, was also a Four Nations enthusiast, although his approach was different from Hardie’s.  Unlike Hardie, Walker opposed Irish Home Rule, convinced that the interests of the Irish working class were best served in a union with a burgeoning British labour movement. This ‘new unionism’, largely of battalions of unskilled workers, spread to Ireland and played a role in early Irish assimilation into the British labour movement. 

This more assertive working class movement was inspired by a socialist revival in the 1880s and the young Keir Hardie was swept along with it.[1]  He became a Scottish miners leader, co-founder of the Scottish Labour Party and later the Independent Labour Party.  But it was in England in 1892, in the London docklands seat of South West Ham, a hotbed of ‘new unionism’, that Hardie was first elected to Parliament. It was during the campaign that Hardie emphasised the supremacy of labour over nationality.  He argued that there was a distinct working class cause and ‘local circumstances sunk into insignificance before the magnitude and grandeur of the labour battle in which they were engaged.’[2] Hardie was even more emphatic on loosing the seat in 1895, when a considerable proportion of the Irish vote went against him for placing core working class issues above the principle of Home Rule. He declared: ‘I want to see the English democracy stretch hands across the channel and join with you [Irishmen] in common crusade against your common enemy – the landlord and the capitalist.’[3

Although, and to underline his Four Nation ethos, Hardie became MP for the Welsh constituency of Merthyr Tydfil, he continued campaigning in Ireland for a Four Nations labour movement, while still supporting a devolutionist Home Rule.  It was during a meeting of the British TUC in Belfast in 1893 that Hardie and Walker first met.  Walker was a carpenter-joiner from the predominantly Protestant working class North Belfast.[4]  Already an active trade unionist, after meeting Hardie he helped establish the Belfast branch of Hardie’s Independent Labour Party.  He became its most prominent street campaigner for socialism and was continually under police protection from threatening ‘loyalists’.  For the remainder of his political life Walker would strenuously promote the idea of a Four Nations labour movement.  He became President of the Irish TUC and Vice-Chairman of the British Labour Party, Belfast City councillor, Parliamentary candidate in Belfast, three times, and in Scotland.   It was during his President’s speech to the Irish TUC in 1904, that Walker called for the setting aside of historic divisions and prejudices, and for the Irish labour movement to join the common working class struggle across the islands. ‘I am convinced’, he said, ‘that Ireland cannot afford to stand isolated in this great campaign.’[5]

Although they differed over the question of Home Rule, neither Hardie nor Walker contemplated a fracturing of the Four Nations and its potential for the labour movement.  Ultimately they failed and perhaps the fissures already existed within the labour movement itself and beyond.  It was, as Walker argued, dependent on a casting aside of sectional and national interests.  For Walker, the Trade Union Congress was the workers Parliament  but by 1894, with Irish trade unionists frustrated that Irish issues were largely marginalised, a separate Irish TUC was formed.  Many also felt excluded as organisers of the Amalgamated Unions in Ireland.  Even Walker expressed exasperation that ‘it seemed to be a cannon of the amalgamated unions that ‘Irishmen need not apply’.  Fragmentation further ensued in 1897 when a separate Scottish TUC was formed, following a dispute over political representation for the Labour movement. 

But 1907 possibly represents the beginning of the end for a Four Nations Labour movement.  The iconic Jim Larkin arrived in Belfast from Liverpool to reorganise the Irish port workers and soon afterwards spearheaded what became a virtual general strike in Belfast.  After it collapsed, with Larkin outflanked by the union old guard alarmed by his confrontational style, he left Belfast for Dublin and formed an independent Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909.  It grew in strength, as did Larkin’s influence, culminating in the famous Dublin Lockout of 1913.  It again ended with no appreciable gains. However, whatever the reality of the situation, and it was complex, the Lockout was seen as a heroic struggle by Irish workers betrayed by the British Labour movement and the forces of reaction. 

Soon, the world was at war, Ireland saw the 1916 Rising and in 1922 a Treaty dividing the country; the ambition of a Four Nations Labour movement gone with it. Was it futile in the first place?  Possibly, with hindsight, though the idea of working class solidarity was not.  Perhaps British Labour was never wholly committed to engaging Ireland on equal terms.  Certainly, its future leader, Ramsey MacDonald, was jaundiced.  His experience as Walker’s election agent in Belfast convinced him that Irish politics were inherently irrational, emotional and unpredictable. As Prime Minister, he would accept the Treaty and partition. The Labour Party would also keep Ireland at arm’s length for the next eighty years. [6]  

 [1]  There are numerous biographies of Keir Hardie, including a substantive one by Caroline Benn (1992).  The most recent is Bob Holman, Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2010).

[2]  Emrys Hughes (ed.) Keir Hardie’s Speeches and Writings (From 1888-1915).  (Glasgow: Forward Printing & Publishing 1961), p.19.

[3]  ibid., p.48.

[4]  There are no substantive biographies of Walker but a number of journal articles, book chapters and short entries in collective biographies e.g The Dictionary of Labour  Biography. The following provide a good account of his political activities: J W Boyle, ‘William Walker’ in Boyle (ed.), Leaders and Workers (Cork: The Mercier Press, 1965) pps.57-65; John W Boyle, ‘Belfast: The Walker Years’ in The Irish Labor Movement in the Nineteenth Century.  (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), pps.294-327; Austen Morgan, ‘William Walker, Socialism and Unionism, 1905-1912’ in Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working Class 1905-1923.  (London: Pluto Press, 1991), pps.57-65.

[5Report of the Eleventh Irish Trades Union Congress, Kilkenny, 23 May 1904, p.16 

[6]  Ivan Gibbons, ‘Ramsay MacDonald and Ireland’,  History Ireland, September/October 2010, p.30. See also Ivan Gibbons, The British Labour Party and the Establishment of the Irish Free State, 1918-1924.  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

 Mike Mecham is a Visiting Lecturer in Irish Labour History and a third year PhD student at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, exploring the role of William Walker and the Belfast labour movement in the development of the British and Irish Labour Parties.

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2 thoughts on “‘Irishmen need not apply’: the failure of a Four Nations labour movement

  1. Yes, Midgley sprang to my mind as soon as I would read this. He was aTrade Union organiser for the Linenlappers, and stood in successive elections, as an Independent candidate in the Labour interest for the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921, and for the Belfast Labour Party in the General Election of 1923. He was elected secretary of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in 1924, and stood as a candidate for them in the election of October 1924. He was finally elected to Belfast City Council in 1925. His eventual ‘conversion’ to Unionism was mainly because of exasperation with the Catholic Church particularly in relation to education policy.

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