Essay by Padraig Yeates

Irish Trades Union Congress Archive

The annual reports of the Irish Trades Union Congress (ITUC) constitute a major archive covering all aspects of political, economic and social life in Ireland. Until now they have only been available to a handful of specialists in labour history. By placing reports from 1901 to 1925 online in conjunction with the National Archives, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is making them available to everyone interested in developing a fuller understanding of the era that saw the advent of partition and the emergence of the modern Irish state.

While industrial relations occupy an important place in these reports, so do pressing social concerns such as housing conditions, public health and political questions such as Home Rule and female suffrage. In the early reports the Irish Parliamentary Party looms large and acted as a conduit for raising issues with the British government, arranging meetings with senior civil servants, and with Cabinet Ministers on occasion. The exchanges with politicians such as John Redmond, leader of the Irish Party and Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, offer insights into their attitude towards issues ranging from partition to free school meals for children. While there were tensions between trade union delegations and the Irish Party leadership on some questions there was also a wide degree of consensus. For instance, no one on the ITUC side appears to have expressed concerns about the Irish Party’s insistence that Magdalene laundries and other Catholic run institutions that employed people should be excluded from the 1901 and 1908 Factories Acts, despite pressure from Liberal and British Labour MPs to include them.

The debates on the floor of Congress in the early years largely reflect the preoccupations of the craft unions, such as the demands for greater protection of Irish industry from foreign competition and the appointment of more trade unionists as Justices of the Peace. Other issues still resonate today, such as the demand that local authorities award contracts to companies that pay ‘a fair rate’ to employees.

Inevitably there were divided opinions on questions great and small. One of the most divisive debates was over the admission of Jim Larkin’s new Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) to the ITUC in 1909 and 1910. The victory of the ‘Larkinites’, or champions of the new, syndicalist school of trade unionism in securing admission for Larkin’s ITGWU marked a sea change in the leadership of the ITUC with members of the old guard, such as the long serving Secretary E L Richardson being replaced by P T Daly, one of Larkin’s close allies. Within two years a motion first proposed by Daly in 1902 that the ITUC establish a Labour Party, rather than continue relying on the Irish Party to champion workers’ rights, was passed on the proposal of James Connolly, an ITGWU delegate.

At the 1913 Congress the main issues were Home Rule and the fight to have the medical benefits of the British National Insurance Act extended to Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act was a cause of concern because the proposed constituency boundaries would dilute the urban vote, thereby reducing the capacity of labour to win seats in the new Home Rule parliament. ITUC hopes that large cities such as Belfast and Dublin would be single multi-seat constituencies were dashed, making it harder for Labour to maximise the working class vote, but easier for Unionist and nationalist opponents to perpetuate sectarian divisions.

Of course the advent of the Lockout within three months was totally unforeseen, as was the outbreak of the First World War within two months of the 1914 conference. It was at the 1914 conference that the Lockout was debated and tensions between the ITUC, the TUC and British Labour Party aired.

There was no conference in 1915 due to the disruption caused by the outbreak of war and lack of funds. 1916 proved even more inauspicious, handicapped as the movement was by the consequences of the Easter Rising. Several leading Dublin trade unionists were killed and many more arrested, including the ITUC&LP Secretary P T Daly. The latter’s arrest meant that much of the customary documentation upon which Congress relied for its National Executive summary of the year’s activities was not available. Tom Johnson’s skilful chairing of the 1916 conference avoided a split in Congress ranks, but there was no denying the growing rift in trade union ranks over partition.

During 1918, in anticipation of the forthcoming general election, the ITUC&LP reversed the order of its title to the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILP&TUC). However this did not reflect any change in organisational structures or procedures. For instance, nominations for Labour candidates in local and national elections continued to be through trades councils, hampering the emergence of a coherent policy at national level. The ILP&TUC failed to contest the snap ‘khaki’ election called by Lloyd George to cash in on the allied victory in December 1918 because of divisions within its own ranks. The primary allegiance many workers gave to Unionism in the North and to Sinn Fein in the South made it impossible to run a unified and independent Labour slate. If Labour had contested the election it would probably have divided the radical nationalist vote and allowed the Unionist or Irish Party candidates to secure at least two extra seats in Dublin.

In the coming years the ILP&TUC agenda would increasingly reflect that of militant nationalism, with which some unions, such as the ITGWU formed close links and of which one union, the Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Workers Trade Union, was a creation. It was in large part an agenda driven by resistance to British policies on issues such as conscription during the latter stages of the First World War and the suppression of Dáil Éireann afterwards. The ILP&TUC never recognised the Dáil as the legitimate government of Ireland, but some individual affiliates and their leaders did. The most effective forms of passive resistance to British rule, such as the general strike against conscription in 1918, the motor permits strike in 1919 and 1920, and the munitions strike of 1920 were the work of the trade unions. In some of these, most notably the motor permits dispute, there was serious disagreement between the Irish and British unions over how they should be handled. However links with the British TUC continued to be immensely important in terms of influencing British public opinion. The ILP&TUC played an essential role in hosting and facilitating the work of the British Labour Commission to Ireland, which published its highly influential report in 1921. On the international front the ILP&TUC secured separate representation for the Irish delegation at the Socialist International conference in 1919 at Berne. While there was an enthusiastic welcome for the Russian revolution in 1917 no attempts were made to build any structured links with the Soviet Union or the Third International, and Leah Hunnewell explores this issue in some depth in her accompanying essay on ‘Irish Labour Internationalism’. By the early 1920s the leadership of the ILP&TUC was distancing itself from the Communist movement as it came under increasing attack from the Catholic Church and the deeply conservative political consensus within the Free State.

1922 was the first year since 1918 when the ILP&ITUC failed to seriously influence events. Its membership was as deeply divided over the Treaty, as it had been over the Union in 1918. Trade union leaders also lost ready access to Dáil Éireann and its Provisional Government successor as pro and anti-Treaty factions became preoccupied with the spectre of Civil War. The general strike against militarism in April 1922 proved the last, the largest but also the least effective of ILP&TUC mobilisations during the period. Nevertheless the ILP&TUC played an important role in the early years of the new Free State, not just in defending workers’ pay and conditions during a period of severe economic hardship, but by acting as a very effective opposition to the new Government in the Dáil when anti-Treaty republicans abstained. In all these diverse ways the ITUC&LP played an important role in laying the foundations of modern Irish democracy.

Structure of the ITUC Reports

These Congress reports begin in 1901 for the simple reason that none appear to have survived for the previous six years. The closing date of 1925 was chosen because the two new political dispensations, North and South, had been firmly established by then and the political terms of reference set for the coming decades.

Up until 1913 each report began with the Presidential address. While it inevitably reflected the preoccupations of the incumbent it was usually representative of the wider concerns of the ITUC Executive as well.

The rest of the document consists of the verbatim minutes of the debates that followed. On the second day these included the annual report of the Parliamentary Committee. As with its British counterpart, the Trades Union Congress, the Parliamentary Committee was the de facto executive of the movement. Each section of the report was debated and adopted by delegates, thus providing them with an opportunity to question and criticise the ITUC leadership. This element of the document also constitutes a progress report on the ITUC agenda during the previous twelve months. It includes all important items of correspondence, summaries of meetings with Government ministers, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the British TUC, Dáil and Provisional governments, as well as reports on industrial disputes, negotiations with employer bodies and other significant events.

In 1913 and 1914 the report of the Parliamentary Committee is given at the start of the proceedings. There was no Congress in 1915 and by the time it reassembled in 1916 the Parliamentary Committee had rechristened itself the National Executive. The full title of the organisation, adopted in 1912, was also carried on the conference report for the first time – the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party (ITUC&LP) in 1916. In 1918 the ITUC&LP reversed the order of its title (see section above) to the ILP&TUC.

Between 1917 and 1919 the structure of the document reverted to the old format and the National Executive’s Report was once more discussed on the second day of Congress. From 1920 onwards the National Executive report is presented separately at the start of the Congress proceedings.

Besides the annual reports, the archive contains the document prepared by the Irish delegation to the Berne Conference of the Socialist International in February 1919. This document outlines the case for Irish self-determination and contains a brief history of the labour movement in Ireland since the formation of the ITUC in 1894.

© Pádraig Yeates