A plague on both your houses: Labour and the Civil War
‘On the civil war our views cannot be too often or too emphatically expressed. In a word they are: a plague on both your houses. … Neither side serves any working class interest, and our job is to steer clear of both.’
Cathal O’Shannon, writing in the ITGWU paper Voice of Labour, knew this was easier said than done. In a climate where neither side believed neutrality was an option, Labour tried to plough its own furrow for which it won few friends.
Labour played no part in negotiating the Treaty or in its adoption by the Second Dáil but once the Dáil voted to accept the Treaty on 7 January, its view was that the matter was settled and it was time to move on to bread and butter issues. Labour tried to establish itself as neutral between the pro and anti-Treaty factions and if that was not possible it was, at least, unattached. It was also unarmed. While the anti-Treaty IRA and the Provisional Government were armed and apparently ready to fight, Labour stood apart. It argued that after four years of conflict (and much longer before that) it was time the gun was taken out of politics. It spoke against militarism, where civil society seemed to run second to the threat of arms, complaining in one manifesto that ‘Both forces have sometimes shown that they have learned lessons in arrogance from the British occupation’.
Labour tried to prevent fighting breaking out in the Spring of 1922. It called a ‘Strike against Militarism’, a one-day demonstration for peace, on Monday, 24 April, the sixth anniversary of the Easter rising. It was involved in the peace conference held days later in the Mansion House which came to nothing. Activists like 1916 veteran Frank Robbins tried in vain to convince friends on the anti-Treaty side to de-escalate matters and after the occupation of the Four Courts, they encouraged the leaders of the garrison to leave. If they ever had an ear, however they had no influence and their efforts came to nought.
By April, Labour was campaigning in its first general election which neither pro or anti-Treaty Sinn Féin had wanted it to contest. Many of its candidates came under pressure to pull out, but on polling day, 16 June, eighteen men ran for Labour and all but one was returned. Two votes in every five went to candidates that stood for neither Sinn Féin faction and of those Labour won half. Based on its share of the vote, had it contested more seats it would have probably won twice that many. The anti-Treaty side, which had fewer votes but had put forward more candidates, was the second largest party, but since it did not recognise the new Dáil, Labour, under the leadership of Thomas Johnson from Liverpool became the official opposition.
Labour protested the delays to the Third Dáil being convened after the election. The Provisional Government argued that the outbreak of the Civil War made it too dangerous for Deputies to travel to the Dáil but also some Deputy’s work as army officers meant that they could not attend. That only underlined Labour’s contention that the political and martial in Ireland had become too closely bound. Johnson faced insurmountable obstacles in the Third Dáil after it was convened in September, not least the Provisional Government’s majority of more than twenty which meant it could easily push through its Free State Constitution, legislate for the new State and agree funds to run its services largely unimpeded. Among the more important legislation that Labour opposed was the draconian Public Safety Bill which was passed at the end of September and came into force the following month. This legislation established military courts empowered to pass sentences up to death for various offences.
The first executions under the Act occurred in mid-November provoking a hostile response from Labour Deputies in Dáil. Afterwards, anti-Treaty chief-of-staff, Liam Lynch wrote to Tom Johnson warning him that Labour’s continuing participation in ‘the proceeding of this illegal parliament can only be construed by us as intentional co-operation with enemy forces in the murder of our soldiers,’ and that he would be held personally responsible in the event of any further executions.
It was not the only threat of its kind made to Labour TDs and Johnson, as leader and probably also because of his nationality, received most of the unwanted attention. They nonetheless refused an the government’s offer of accommodation under armed protection in Buswells Hotel across the road from Leinster House. In a public response to Lynch, Johnson said that he and his party were ‘responsible to the organised workers of Ireland and to them alone’. As it was, the Labour representatives were spared any personal assaults but the party’s head office in Dublin was wreckeded by anti-Treatyites on one occasion and its equipment stolen.
The threats against the Government TDs were quite real. On 7 December Deputy Hales was killed on his way to Dáil Éireann and his colleague, Pádraig Ó Máille, wounded. It was an appalling event, followed soon after by the execution of four Republican prisoners in Mountjoy. Labour’s response to the extrajudicial executions in Mountjoy went further than its criticism of the execution of Erskine Childers and others the previous month with Labour TD Cathal O’Shannon plainly accusing the Government of murder and of “prostituting the Constitution”. Newly-elected Labour Senator and former INTO general secretary Eamonn Mansfield, resigned his seat in protest before he had even signed the roll. He was alone in doing so. But, as Johnson explained to one branch which called for the party to withdraw, Labour could not leave the Government without an Opposition. For Johnson the rule of law came before everything. As he told Richard Mulcahy the following summer It was a stance that inevitably attracted criticism from Government TDs. For the anti-Treaty side, the laws Johnson was so keen to uphold were illegal since they were derived under a Constitution and by an Oireachtas that they did not recognise. Despite being held in contempt by both sides, Johnson never ceased to speak up. Perhaps his most significant intervention during the civil war related to events in Kerry in 1923. He contested the Government’s assurances that the killing of prisoners in Ballyseedy had been accidental.
Labour continued to advocate for a cease fire and tabled questions in the House about a settlement after the dump arms order on 24 May. When the Government introduced the Public Safety (Emergency Powers) Bill or the ‘flogging Bill’ almost a month afterwards, Labour did its best to prevent its passing, only succeeding in delay. An appalled Johnson said it out-Heroded Herod and ‘out-Higgins O’Higgins’. Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan responded that ‘One naturally expects a certain amount of, shall I call it futile altruism from Deputy Johnson, but I suggest that in his last speech he has out-Johnsoned Johnson.’ The Labour leader and his party were mocked as a naive do-gooders by the Government in the Dáil and relentlessly attacked by the opponents of the Treaty outside it. The ITGWU’s Frank Robbins, who remained neutral during the Civil War, recalled that it was ‘a heart-breaking period’. He was shunned by old friends who supported the anti-Treaty militants while at the same time he was subject to the unwanted attentions of CID which raided his home and workplace and held him for questioning in its notorious Oriel House head quarters. The Voice of Labour, which was heavily censored by the Free State, was highly critical of Black and Tan tactics being used by Provisional Government troops against workers who played no role in the conflict.
Speaking before the dissolution of the Third Dáil, Tom Johnson reflect that
Most of us, I suppose, would very much prefer not to have lived through the last 12 months, and I think, perhaps, the less said about the last 12 months the better. If it would be possible to blot out of Ireland's history the last 18 or 20 months we would be pleased, but it is not possible. I think that, apart from any disputed questions, in 10 or 20 years' time historians will be able to say that this Assembly has, at least, contributed something to the building up of the idea of Parliamentary institutions.
Unfortunately, for Labour the building up of institutions was not something that was likely to win votes and the August 1923 election saw its share of the vote halved. It could point to few tangible achievements but the presence of a serious and diligent Opposition in the Dáil during the civil was important even if it was unpopular.
Niamh Puirséil writes on modern Irish political and labour history in particular. Her books include The Irish Labour Party 1922 to 1973 and Kindling the Flame. 150 Years of the INTO
– This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 –