Sectarian Divisions of Ulster Labor Politics 1885-1906
On the 1st of July 1690, William, Prince of Orange, defeated the forces of James II at the Boyne on the Northern shores of Ireland. The significance of this event in Irish history does not lie in its military or political repercussions so much as it does in the religious overtones which were to echo into the next two and one half centuries of Irish politics. The conquering of the Catholic King, by his Protestant archrival, was to become the basis of political, social, and economic separation of an entire population of Irishmen. Religious differences soon evolved into linguistic differences and eventually, cultural distinctions. The development of two distinct traditions, one of Protestant, English and lowland Scottish roots, the other of Roman Catholic, Gaelic, and Celtic heritage, inevitably led to conflicts of competing interests in all areas of life. Had these two traditions been founded on equal footing, the disturbing and violent nature of Irish history may have been a calmer one. But the reality was an existence of a Protestant minority with close ties to the British mainland, which has been endowed with economic and political power over the vast majority of Catholic Irishmen.
Despite various but feeble attempts, by Catholics, to alleviate this disparity, throughout the next two hundred and fifty years, the situation was not to change drastically. However, an avalanche of radical events was to spark the birth of a move towards equality in the latter half of the 19th century that would extend to become Irish Nationalism. Perhaps the most drastic of these changes which were to take place in the northern counties, Collectively known as Ulster, were changes affecting the economic status. It was during this period that the area had become heavily industrialized in relation to the rest of the island. Industrialization had been a result of the modernization of the linen industry, spawned by the cotton famine during the American Civil War, and the migration and establishment of many of the world's largest shipbuilding companies in Belfast. The inevitable demand for skilled, as well as unskilled, labor allowed for the migration of poor tenant farmers into northern cities like Belfast and Londonderry seeking brighter economic prospects. In fact, it was during this period of relative population decline in Ireland as a whole, that Belfast had seen astounding growth of over 47%. The establishment of trade unions and labor organizations was given impetus by mainland labor organizations and, by this time had become, sufficiently well developed in this region. Labor politics in the region had manifested itself soon after becoming closely tied to mainland labor political groups and had developed to levels comparable to the rest of the United Kingdom by the turn of the century.
However well developed the labor movement had become, and however distinct the social and economic conditions between Ulster and the rest of Ireland, in both regions, labor issues were not predominant in Parliamentary politics. It was the genesis of the Home Rule movement that was to take the Parliamentary ``lime light''. The essence of the Home Rule question had begun in Westminster as a question of nationalism, which, in Ireland, was to become equated with religion. This polarization, along these lines, had resulted from Irish Protestant fears that ``Home Rule meant Rome Rule''. The general Protestant sentiment was that without the protection of the British Crown, their religious freedoms would be jeopardized by the Catholic masses. With an overwhelming majority of the Irish population being Catholic, Protestant concerns cannot be seen as being without foundation. However, the movement of Protestants to maintain the Union of the Crown and the Ireland, was to center primarily in the North. Unlike Ireland as a whole, in this region's counties, Protestants were often the majority It is upon this stage that labor politics was to perform its rise and fall during the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.
To understand the nature of labor politics in Ulster and its attempts to distance itself from the question of nationalism, one must first understand the political, social, and economic nature of sectarian divisions in the region. Without such an understanding much of the political activities that culminated during this period would seem incomprehensible and unreasonable. Líam De Paor, a prominent scholar of the Ulster region, describes the situation in this manner:
In Ulster where industrialisation was more advanced than in any other
part of the country, a development of social revolutionary movements might
have been expected perhaps by the end of the century, but the working
class in Ulster was divided, and the division was fostered and maintained
by middle and upper-class interests. Especially after the revival of Orangeism,
the workers tended to organise in Orange lodges or in the opposing clubs
of the corresponding Catholic organisation .
There were two things [working] men were willing to fight and die for,
religion and politics -- a religion they had not got and a politics they
did not understand.
Labour Politics was undoubtedly influenced by the economic conditions of Ulster during this period. By 1881, 44% of Ulster's population was employed by industry, comprising the largest employed subsection of the population. This was not the case in Ireland as a whole where only 24% of the population was employed by Industry. The wages of industrial employees can be easily separated into two categories: those of skilled workers, and those of unskilled workers. While wages of skilled workers was comparable to those in Great Britain as a whole, those of the unskilled worker were significantly less than that of the their mainland British counterparts. This had primarily been the result of the lack of organization of unskilled workers comprised primarily of women in the linen industry, and their vast supply, drawing from a large group of Catholic migrants from economically agrarian based counties who were willing to work for low wages. The largest portion of the work force, women workers of the linen industry, were not organized until 1910 and even then only represented some 10% of the female textile workers. This was in contrast to skilled workers in the shipbuilding and steel industries who had been organised by the 1850's and in large numbers. By 1901, the population of Belfast, the industrial center of Ulster, had been approximately 24.1% Catholic while the Catholics, during this period, never represented more than 12% of the ``skilled'' labour force (i.e. Engineers, boilermakers, etc.). In contrast, the Catholic minority represented a majority of the unskilled linen industry (made up, primarily of women and girls), and 41% of the dockers. The net result was the creation of labour representation, which had primarily drawn from skilled unions, that was heavily Protestant in composition. Although heavily favouring Protestants, its positions on religious issues provide evidence against the nationalist/socialist principles avowed by Irish contemporaries of the period such as James Connolly, leader of the southern socialist movement and a staunch nationalist, who claimed divisions of labour by religion, which amount to the establishment of a ``labour aristocracy,'' created by Protestant business owners. This more radical view has been rejected by modern socialists in favour of a view Strauss has adopted:
Although they were not better treated by their masters than the Protestant
workers of Great Britain by theirs, Ulster Protestant workers were in
a privileged position compared with their Catholic competitors. This modest
share of the fruits of colonial conquest was perhaps the strongest tie
between them and their masters.
A good many Roman Catholics seemed to think that if Home Rule were granted
all they would have to do would be to seize upon their neighbor's property.
But the Unionists of Ulster had had to work for what they had, and they
intended to stick to it. ... The Home Rule policy was a policy of plunder
Tom Sloan became the first candidate to capitalize on the situation in his 1902 by-election candidacy for the South Belfast MP. His election was the first sign of support for Independent Orange-Labour support in Ulster. The events of the preceding year and the resignation of the last conservative leaders from the Belfast Trade Council allowed him to gain support from within the council and its political wing, the Independent Labour Party. Although he was not officially endorsed by the council, he ran on a platform appealing the ``Protestant Working Man''. His campaign was decidedly sectarian; Sloan played to an audience of Protestants who were disillusioned with the concessions of their traditional Conservative representatives to Catholics, and their opposition to labour legislation. Because of his public declaration of religious partiality he was not to be endorsed by the BTC, who, by charter, were obliged not to support a candidate taking a stand on the issue. It was in fact, his unquestionable Protestant attitude that was to act as the nemesis for his opponent, the Conservative-Liberal coalition candidate, C. W. Dunbar-Buller, who was attacked for his lack of support for ``Protestantism, ... trade unionism, and in a word he was fighting Protestant Belfast''. Dunbar-Buller was defeated by a 826 vote majority, a margin of more than 14%. Sloan's campaign was to become the hallmark to the Independent Labour movement which was to center around the ILP and its candidates. The end of Conservative-Liberal domination which began with his victory, was to instigate a series of attacks upon traditional bastions of Unionist Control. The year following his election sparked the beginning of the working class revolt of the old Orange Order led by Lindsay Crawford and the new Independent Orange Order. In subsequent elections, Sloan was to return to Parliament under the auspices of the Independent Orange Order and Lindsay Crawford, its founder. Historians agree that Sloan's success was, at least partly, a result of his appeal to the working classes and labour issues, but the degree to which the labour factor had played a significant role is a matter of debate. Boyle and Clarkson have argued this on socialist lines citing this factor as the main impetus for voters to chose Sloan. This view is not held by Patterson, Morgan, or Beckett who have assigned a greater significance to Sloan's appeal to Protestants as being more Protestant than his opponent. In some sense, both analyses are flawed in that they do not adequately explain the results of Labour candidates in similar elections, particularly in the districts of West Belfast and North Belfast.
Had Sloan's success been simply due to his appeal to the working class's labour interests, narrow losses by his fellow labour representatives would be left explained. Clearly, the use of the religious trump card was a significantly advantageous ploy. The Northern Belfast district election during the years that followed help to illustrate this point. The ILP which had been in existence since the early 1890's, had not been able to put forth a viable candidate for MP until 1905. It was in this year that Sir James Haslett who had held office for nine years passed away, leaving a vacancy in North Belfast. The Labour Representation Council (the leadership of the ILP) felt that the vacancy presented an opportunity for Labour to seize an electoral seat. William Walker was chosen to run, over a fellow Labour representative by the LRC because of his rhetorical abilities. His ascendency was by no means sudden. He had been president of the Trades Council after the departure of Sam Monro, a Conservative Unionist, and had been the de facto leader of the socialist wing of the ILP during Monro's term. The previous year, Walker had taken seat in Duncairn ward in North belfast to solidify his position in the region. His candidacy was then supported by the Irish Trade Unions Council as well as the Dublin and Belfast branches. His solid backing by the Labour hierarchy and his funding by the LRC seemed to indicate that his candidacy would be in a good position to capture North Belfast's working class constituency. The economic conditions of the time tended to support this idea. The area had witnessed an economic recession in the years of 1904 and 1905 with unemployment in some industries reaching as high as 19%. The position of the TUC and its members had been seen as that of protector of local jobs following its lead of a 1904 demonstration against the contracting of the local tramway system to outside firms. The working class constituency was assumed to be quite large given the presence of both of Belfast's largest shipbuilding yards in the district (Harland and Wolff, and Workman Clark and Company). The economic indicators seemed to further suggest that working class support would lie with Walker. Politically, he seemed a good match for his opponent, the Conservative Lord Mayor Sir Daniel Dixon, a staunch conservative, who had been opposed by Liberal Unionists, and criticized by Protestant press, particularly the The Irish Protestant. Furthermore, his alignment, although not overt, with the IOO should have further strengthened his ties with the Protestant workers while not alienating their Catholic counterparts. However, it was this sectarian policy which was to cost him his candidacy.
Walker's district of North Belfast was relatively Protestant having a Catholic minority of approximately 12%. This was half the city-wide average of 24% and would seem to make North Belfast a district suited for an independent Protestant Candidate. Choosing to run his campaign on labour issues alone (as specified by the LRC and TUC charters), he attempted to avoid questions of religion and Home Rule policy. Here Ramsay McDonald, Walker's election agent, offers a sample of the political deflection of religious issues here:
Catholics and Protestants, though not agreeing on certain grounds, should
agree on others when it was a question of the Workman's Compensation Act,
the amendment of the Factories Act, and the Old Age Pension scheme.
Walker's campaign was to end in September, in a narrow defeat, with Walker losing by 474 votes. But this loss was not to come before the candidate was to make a tactical error that would swing a significant portion of the estimated 1,000 Catholic voters away from Labour. Some months before the election proper, the Belfast Protestant Association had pressured both candidates to answer a questionnaire to determine their resolve to uphold Protestant policy in Parliament. Dixon had refused to cooperate until Walker answered, on the grounds, that his ``Protestantism'' was not in doubt. Walker, after attempting to evade the survey, was cornered by the BPA's secretary a week before the election, and without consultation from his election committee answered the survey. His replies were subsequently printed in Protestant and Unionist papers throughout the city, resulting in internal disapproval from his election councillors. Dixon's campaign, upon seeing Walker's replies, declined to answer the survey, and instead, circulated flyers on election day containing their own version of the survey. Walker's replies, although satisfactory to Protestant organizations, were clearly indicative of his bigotry towards Catholics. One question asked: ``Will you, in all things, place the interests of Protestantism before those of the political party to which you are attached?'', Walkers response was, although somewhat evasive, a clear sign of his aversion to Catholicism: `` Protestantism means protesting superstition, hence true Protestantism is synonymous with labour''. He had identified labour as equivalent to Protestantism and, furthermore, the remaining replies illustrated an attitude that was not only Anti-Nationalist, but also blatantly Anti-Catholic.
It is generally accepted that this critical error was the cause of his loss in 1905. Joseph Devlin, publisher of the Northern Star, a Labour newspaper, and, later, West Belfast MP, described the event as follows:
Mr. Walker might have counted on the Nationalist vote had he been a genuine
labour candidate, professing merely Unionist proclivities, for, as between
two Unionists the Nationalist Party ever supports the more tolerant and
progressive of the two, especially if he happens to be a Labour candidate.
But Mr. Walker showed himself to be not only a violent Unionist, but a
rabid bigot to boot.
In the following year, Walker's potential condemnation by his own ILP
and the British and Irish trade councils was narrowly averted despite
dissension from within the his own ranks. The primary reason being that
he seemed a viable candidate for the regular elections in 1906 of which
he was to make substantial headway, gaining a larger percentage of the
electorate, but again losing to Dixon. The 1906 election year would be
the last in which Walker would make any such gains, subsequent elections
are beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that although
representatives of labour interests were to win election in the Western
and Southern districts, they did not run on behalf of the Labour party
alone. These candidates including Tom Sloan, and Joseph Devlin, had openly
declared themselves to be Unionist and Nationalist respectively, and endorsed
by Labour in subsequent elections. Although the 1906 election did represent
the height of Labour's political presence, it would also be the beginning
of Labour's retreat from Ulster politics into a more revolutionary posture.
The overwhelming burden of sectarian cleavages was to bring an unavoidable
end of Labour's appeal to the partitioned electorate. Many historians
tend to agree with McDonald who argued for a complete removal of Labour
candidates from the sectarian issue. His argument was put forth in this
In their endeavor to keep the allegiance of the Protestant masses, the
Ulster businessmen had no need to be afraid of Devlin and Redmond. Their
real antagonists were Larkin and Connolly.