The Socialist Standard theme this month is the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Dublin Uprising.
How did history progress from that Easter? First there was a civil war between those who still sought a united Irish Republic and those who compromised by accepting Dominion status and the division of Ireland. The Free State government having won its civil war then used their military to crush the workers' movement.
Although the president of the Cumann na nGaedheal government was William Cosgrave it was under the influence of Kevin O’Higgins who famously quipped that Cumann na nGaedheal were the ‘most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.’ Labour historian Emmet O' Connor describes how thousands of paramilitary police (Special Infantry Corps) were deployed so that by 1923 ‘military intervention was becoming a routine response to factory seizures or the disruption of essential services’. During the Waterford farm strike of 1923 ‘600 SIC were billeted in a chain of posts throughout the affected area.’ In September 1922, 10,000 postal workers went on strike provoked by a government which rejected the findings of its own commission of enquiry into the cost of living for postal employees and imposed a wage cut. The reaction of the government was all too predictable and the army were sent in to break the strike, soldiers threatening strikers and armoured cars driven into picket lines. ‘Numerous arrests and re-arrests of pickets were made until the right to peacefully picket was asserted in the courts. Even then, troops continued to intimidate strikers with armoured vehicles and rifle fire. On 17 September a lady telephonist was shot in the knees. Raids took place on union offices and arrests of officials continued.’ O’Connor writes.
The rural poor were also victims of Cumann na nGaedhael in power. Hoping to cultivate a support base with larger farmers in Ireland, they supported these farmers in their ongoing attempts to drive down the wages of landless agricultural labourers. These labourers formed around 23% of the rural workforce. As a class they had been the big losers during the land war of the 1880′s as they could not benefit from reforms that allowed farmers buy land given they had none. Their attempts to gain a stake in Irish rural society through organising themselves in the ITGWU (The Irish Transport and General Workers Union) in the early 20th century was fiercely resisted by farmers. In 1923 farmers, emboldened by the knowledge that the Free State would support them, locked out thousands of unionised labourers in attempts to drive down wages. In Athy, Co. Kildare when farmers locked out 350 labourers the National Army arrested the ITGWU branch secretary in the area. When a farmer was attacked and a threshing machine damaged 8 trade unionists were arrested and held for 3 months without trial or charge. Over 400 landlords were dispossessed by agricultural labourers (often ITGWU members). This went on until the IRA came to the aid of the gentry by having the republican land courts order an end to ‘illegal seizures’. This was not an isolated incident. The IRA was increasingly moving against workers' struggles. Among the better known examples are the smashing of a farm workers' strike at Bulgaden and the eviction of a 'Soviet' occupation from the mills at Quarterstown. Though they didn't always get their own way, one case was at Kilmacthomas when the IRA tried to keep the roads open while strikers were stopping the movement of scab labour and goods. Later in the year when 1500 labourers were locked out in Waterford the response was similar. The state sent in 600 Soldiers and the entire of East Waterford was put under a curfew between 11p.m. and 5:30 am. Meanwhile nothing was done to stop vigilantes organised by farmers called ‘White Guards’ attacking union organisers across the county. The land-owners, backed by the state, emerged victorious and crushed the union.
This, accompanied by high unemployment, broke the power of organised rural labour. The ITGWU’s membership halved in the following three years. This was reflected by the fact that within 5 years days lost to strike action were reduced by 95%. In the absence of unions, the government clearly had no interest in their welfare and the labourers had no one to defend their corner. This saw their living standards plummet. There was a 10% fall in agricultural labourers’ wages between 1922 and 1926 and a further 10% in the following 5 years. These policies saw a whole section of the rural population – the labourers - disappear through emigration, little wonder given their income had fallen by 20% between 1923 and 31.
The desperate living standards of the urban poor was one of the greatest single social issue facing “The Free State” in 1923. The tenement population in Dublin lived in crushing poverty. However instead of helping the poorest of the poor the government focused on building houses for the well-off, which saw the expansion of the suburbs on the fringes of Dublin. Little was done to alleviate the conditions among the urban poor in Dublin. Housing construction was largely privatised and thus little was done to alleviate the desperate squalor in which people lived as they could never afford housing. Dublin Corporation only built an average of 483 houses a year between 1923 and 1933. This led to the deterioration of housing conditions. In 1926, when a census was conducted, over a third of the population of Dublin lived in housing conditions with an average of 4 people per room. This disregard for overcrowding was worsened by their tax approach. Appealing to the rich in society the Free State, short of money, reduced income tax from what was 27% to 15% and instead turned to indirect taxation, which had a greater impact on the poor. The outcome of these policies was revealed in 1926 when the statistic of an infant mortality rate of 12% among children younger than one in urban areas was revealed. The indifferent attitude of Free State politicians would allow this to continue unaddressed with all its devastating consequences.
Eamon de Valera’s later smothered the labour movement in the embrace of Fianna Fáil. He talked the language of social democracy with enough rhetoric to rob labour of a distinctive voice, while never delivering the goods and transforming the new republic into a quasi-theocracy where the important social issues were placed under the tutelage of Catholic Church.