14 July 2011
James Connolly in Belfast
TWO DOCUMENTARIES on the life of James Connolly were produced last year. One of them, the most substantive, was a documentary by Brian O’Flaherty, ‘James Connolly - A Working Class Hero’, currently available on DVD. The second was part of a series on prominent people in Irish history and presented by Joe Duffy. While both films had merits they shared one glaring omission - they completely ignored the crucial years Connolly spent in Belfast.
For Connolly, the Belfast experience did much to shape his republicanism, his socialism and his trade unionism. His work there and what he wrote about it influenced his comrades of the time and subsequent generations of revolutionaries.
James Connolly returned to Ireland from the United States in July 1910, having spent seven years there. He moved first to Dublin, working with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and joining the Socialist Party of Ireland. In May 1911, he moved to Belfast, settling later that year with his wife, Lily, and six children at 1 Glenalina Terrace, Falls Road.
Appointed as Belfast Branch Secretary and Ulster Organiser of the ITGWU, Connolly set up office at 112 Corporation Street. Belfast was to be his base for the remaining five years of his life, though he spent much of the later months in Dublin leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising.
The ITGWU was weak in Belfast when Connolly arrived. The British-based National Union of Dock Labourers and the craft unions dominated, while left-wing politics, such as it was, consisted of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), also British-based. The main political forces in Belfast were the unionist ruling class who lorded over industry and politics and the Nationalist Party under West Belfast MP Joe Devlin.
Against these forces Connolly would battle in the next five years, taking his stand with the grossly exploited workers in the mills, factories and docks of the city and winning recruits for the cause of socialism and Irish independence.
The month he moved to Belfast, Connolly wrote an article strongly critical of the Belfast ILP which he said seemed “scarcely distinguishable from imperialism” in its opposition to national self-determination for Ireland. The reply came from Belfast ILP leader and councillor William Walker. He had been an unsuccessful British Labour Party candidate and had pledged to oppose Home Rule in parliament. Walker argued that the ILP were true internationalists and was critical of Connolly’s support for Irish independence. Connolly argued in turn that true internationalism was based on the co-operation of free peoples and that socialism could never be achieved while Ireland was within the British Empire. A year later, Walker left the labour movement after he was given a lucrative job by the British Government.
Connolly’s first strike in Belfast was that of the dockers. They were paid a penny per ton for shoveling iron ore — three pence less than dockers in Britain. Connolly organised Catholic and Protestant workers in support of the strike and, from Catholic and Orange bands, formed a non-sectarian band which paraded the streets collecting for the strike fund. He addressed strike meetings at the Custom House steps. The dockers’ strike ended when the workers won increased wages.
The slave conditions of the dockers were replicated in the linen mills of Belfast where women and children worked with dangerous machines in damp and dust which destroyed their health. Talking, laughing, singing adjusting their hair and eating sweets were forbidden. A small group of women staged a strike and approached Connnolly for help. He organised hundreds of them in an all-out strike and, while they did not win their pay claim, they returned to work and defied the rules on which the bosses had to back down. Out of the struggle grew a strong branch of the ITGWU.
The year Connolly moved to Belfast saw escalating unionist opposition to Home Rule which was now in prospect. Connolly saw clearly the way in which unionists — in league with the Tory Party in England — used sectarianism to divide the working class in Belfast and, based on his experience in that city, he pointed out repeatedly during the remaining five years of his life what a disaster the partition of Ireland would be.
James Connolly led the strike of dock workers in July 1911, 100 years ago this month.