From working class to ruling class: 100 years of the Irish Labour Party

The organised workers’ movement in Ireland was transformed at the beginning of the 20th century, amid an upsurge of intense industrial struggles that brought revolutionary sentiments to new sections of Irish society. Seeing the significance in these developments, James Connolly proposed “to the toilers of Ireland that it is time to make an effort to retrieve the situation and once more to raise the banner of a militant Irish labour movement upon the political field”.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of an historic motion moved by James Connolly and seconded by Jim Larkin, which was passed at a conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) in Clonmel. It called for independent political representation for the working class and it led to the setting up of the Labour Party in Ireland.

The social force driving these events were the most exploited and oppressed in society, the unskilled workers who were now joining the trade unions in their thousands; challenging the reformism and conservatism at the tops of these organisations. This phenomenon, which had taken Britain by storm in the previous two decades, became known as “new unionism”.

Socialist origins of the Labour Party

Connolly and Larkin, both revolutionary socialists, played leading roles in the struggles taking place at this time. They saw the rottenness of a system that benefitted only the wealthy bosses and elites, who lived off the backs of the working class and poor. They also saw the potential power of the labour movement, to defend and fight for the interests of ordinary people and ultimately to strive for a socialist society.

They brought vital ideas that strengthened the movement on the industrial front; the ideas of trade union solidarity and international workers’ unity. With the growing industrial might of the workers, they argued for a political arm for the trade unions. For a broad based party of the working class, that would stand with the movement and offer a political alternative to the parties of nationalism and unionism, all of whom represented the interests of capitalism.

An important resolution was passed at an ITUC conference in 1914 which stated; “the Congress urges that labour unrest can only be ended by the abolition of the capitalist system of wealth production with its inherent injustice and poverty”. This was a reflection of the determined attitude and understanding of the workers who had just come through the brutal class war of the 1913 lockout. But it was also an essential recognition that any compromise with the capitalist system on the part of the Labour Party, would mean a betrayal of the class it represented.

Labour Party in the 21st century

This is the tradition from which the Labour Party of today stems, but betrayals by the leadership unfortunately became the hallmark of the Labour Party throughout its history. Many opportunities to build a mass party that could unite all workers in a struggle to change society were wasted, particularly during the 1918-22 period, when revolution was firmly on the agenda – with “soviets” springing up across the country as workers took control of factories, mills and even whole towns.

It must be said however, that even the sell-out leaders of the past would surely feel ashamed to see the total capitulation of the Labour Party to the capitalist market system and all things anti-worker, today. From a party founded to give a political voice to working class people, it is now its antithesis; a neo-liberal party from top to bottom.

Nothing now separates the Labour Party from the traditional parties of the establishment in Ireland. As enthusiastic partners in a vicious right-wing coalition government, Labour have done all they can to match Fine Gael in callously attacking public services and living standards. The Labour Party mayor in Killarney recently called for a merger with the morally bankrupt Fianna Fáil, as he sees “no insurmountable policy differences”! Referencing Eamon Gilmore’s infamous pre-election slogan a United Left Alliance placard put it aptly; “Labour’s way is Frankfurt’s way”.

For real parties of labour

Although the Labour Party, like the former social democratic parties around the world, no longer represent working people, independent political representation for workers, the unemployed and young people is needed more than ever. As the economic crisis unfolds, the ability of the 1% to continue their rule over society is aided most of all by the absence of mass organisations of the working class, committed to the unrelenting fight for democratic socialism.

There are many striking similarities between the period when the Labour party was founded and today. The enormous tasks set out by James Connolly have yet to be fulfilled and the Socialist Party considers those tasks a burning priority for ordinary people in a world of crisis.