The IRSP on James Connolly: On the 104th anniversary of his death, a short reflection on his life and legacy.

On Friday 12 May 1916, one-hundred-and-four years ago today, James Connolly the commander in chief of Irish forces during the Easter Rising was executed. Connolly is more widely recognised for his role in the rising, but militarism only came in the final years of a lifelong struggle against capitalism.

Born the son of Irish parents, in Edinburg 1868, he was no stranger to poverty and his working life would have begun as a child. Connolly would immerse himself in socialist politics and became an exceptional thinker and organiser dedicated to the ousting of British imperialism and the establishment of a Socialist republic. After becoming an organiser in Ireland, he would go onto found the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) in 1896; and set up the Workers Republic newspaper. Along with Jim Larkin, he ran the ITGWU and established the ICA, anecdotally thought to have been referred to by Lenin as the first Workers Army. 

It is often claimed that Connolly was pushed towards militarist nationalism by disillusionment following the defeat of the workers in the 1913 lockout, and the failure of organised industrial labour to prevent workers flocking to the trenches in World War One. However, crucially for our view of the period and of relevance to the world of industrial relations & politics today – is the question of why organised labour failed to put a stop to World War One, and here we stress the foregrounding of Connolly’s assertion that ‘labours organisational power must extend beyond the point of production’. He recognised that for a true working-class revolutionary movement, then the power of organised workers must not be confined to the workplace. Today the IRSP maintains this key insight of Connolly – and assert that all spheres and scales of working-class activity, from the community up to the workplace and political organising, should be co-ordinating and cooperating in opposition to the capitalist system and the exploitative class structure.

This idea of merging the political goals of socialism with the power of industrial trade unionism would eventually find expression itself in the post-World War Two era with the emergence of the social-democratic ‘welfare state’ across western Europe. These modest but none-the less significant gains for the working class would soon be under attack however, and in the 1970s and 80s mass strikes and social unrest in Ireland were making life ever more difficult for Irish capitalism. The Irish State acting on behalf of Irish capitalist interests combatted these gains of the working class by the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act of 1990. The man who introduced this legislation was the then Minister of Labour – that esteemed Drumcondra gentleman, and later architect of the Celtic Tiger economy (and economic catastrophe) – one Bartholomew Patrick “Bertie” Ahern. Equivalent legislation had already been enacted by the British Government that covered the occupied 6 counties in the north of Ireland.

The fundamental goals of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 were to control trade unions and discipline labour. The unions have since wavered from their radical origins and were now cosying with the state in a new relationship that came to be known as ‘social partnership’. Effectively this legislation criminalised the co-ordination and cooperation of the political and industrial spheres. Many of the most effective weapons workers could use were outlawed, such as wild cat strike, sit ins, secondary pickets and solidarity strikes.

The results of this are evidently only beneficial to the capitalist class. There is less security of employment; there is less union density; there is greater inequality and a generation of workers who have little or no concept of the benefits of strong trade unions. Ordinary working-class people are today rightly suspicious of Trade Unions, who they see as being run by fat cats and big wigs who insist on being aligned to anti working-class political parties such as the Irish Labour Party – the ones who effectively rolled over to the Industrial Relations Act 1990 and enabled the dismantling of Trade Union culture in Ireland and the resulting severe weakening of working class power and influence.

We do not denounce unions as unbeneficial to the working class but on the contrary assert that activists and committed republican socialists should be active in these institutions. Furthermore, we believe workers and unions alike – and especially the Union leaders of today who are everywhere invoking the spirit and ghost of Connolly on the anniversary of his execution – should live up to the legacy of the man himself and strive and organise to repeal this anti-worker legislation. As we claim to follow in the tradition of Connolly in principle and action, then we believe that once this legislation is done way with then trade unions can remerge as strong organisations of the working class, and can be once again incorporated into the revolutionary tradition of the working class movement.