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29 April 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The Limerick Soviet

In the second part of an article on the Limerick Soviet of 1919, Aengus O Snodaigh tells the story of its brief height and fall.

As the Limerick Soviet became established from April 15, 1919, onwards and people began to realise that they could be in for the long haul, panic buying of food stocks started. Immediately, the Soviet ordered the bakers back to work, fixed milk, potato, butter and bread prices and ensured delivery to the shops tasked with their sale. Seven thousand tons of Canadian grain on board a docked ship was confiscated and unloaded. Depots were set up outside the city to receive food for the city. This was smuggled into the city whatever way possible, by boat, hearses, whatever. These measures proved to be a success.

The Soviet issued travel passes to thousands travelling on the city's transportation system, which was fully controlled by the workers. When strike money was not forthcoming from some of the British-based unions, the Soviet imaginatively issued its own currency ``in denominations of one, five and ten shillings''.

Fuel became a problem, though, for the strike leadership, with the coal merchants refusing to release stocks to them. To avoid direct confrontation with the merchants, they backed down, issuing an order that the military or customers with military permits were not to be supplied.

Soon, opposition from the authorities, the business community and the churches began to be mobilised against the workers. They were worried that the strike would spread ``over the whole of Ireland, North, South, East and West and maybe to England, Scotland and Wales''.

A Daily Express journalist put it thus: ``The leadership mean to win, and it certainly seems as if the workers of Ireland were with them... I have witnessed many strikes in England but never one bearing any resemblance to this. It is a grand slam, and it suggests possibilities on which it is not pleasant to ponder.''

Sympathetic strikes outside of Limerick were being offered, regardless of the frowning of British-based trade union executives on support for ``an industrial move against political action''.

The national leadership of the Irish Labour Party and Trades Unions Congress (ILPTUC) and of the biggest union, the ITGWU, seemed to support the Limerick workers, suggesting in statements that a national general strike was to be called. But it was not to be.

They backed down, and instead suggested the evacuation of the city, hoping that moral force would force the British to back down. What it actually meant was that the labour leadership, backed by much of the Sinn Féin leadership in the background, were willing to go to any length to avoid a full-scale confrontation with the British military authorities - Sinn Féin's militancy or even support for action against the British occupying forces was in its infancy at this stage.

The Soviet was by now in existence 10 days. The Congress leadership bar, William O'Brien and Thomas Cassidy travelled to Limerick to put their suggestion to the Soviet. It was flatly rejected.

News of the plan leaked out, and it was seized upon as a chink in the Soviet's armour. The next day, April 24, the Catholic bishop, Dr Hallinan and the Lord Mayor held a series of bilateral meetings with the Congress leaders and the military authorities. They formed the impression that the Congress leaders were against a general strike and succeeded in gaining minimal concessions on the issue of military permits from General Griffin. From these meetings, the Bishop and the Mayor issued a letter to the Congress leaders insisting that the strike be ended immediately. On April 26, the Strike Committee began to back down, with Thomas Johnston, Congress leader, declaring at a mass meeting the return to work in areas not effected by the military permits and that a special conference would be planned to consider further action in the effected areas.

The capitulation was complete, and many of the workers went home crest-fallen, dejected and disgusted at their leadership. Many did not return to work straight away and on April 27 the Strike Committee issued a proclamation stating that the strike was at an end. The military proclamation was revoked a week later on May 5.

Thomas Johnston defended the executive's decision at the Congress conference in Drogheda in August 1919, saying:

``The General Strike meant - that it has got to be backed up by guns, that it meant a Revolution; and until they were prepared to use guns and hoist the Red Flag from one end of the country to the other there was no use in condemning the National Executive because they did not call a general strike.''

The capitulation of the labour leadership to the church, the military and the chamber of commerce was to have far-reaching consequences for the labour movement in Ireland. The militancy which was associated with the Irish labour movement was gone and with it the belief that civil disobedience or protest could dislodge the British. The IRA was now seen as the only credible opposition to the British. The Limerick Soviet came into existence 80 years ago this month.

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