Dubliners

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Review of 'Rebel City', John Newsinger, Merlin Press £14.95

At the start of the 20th century, Irish workers were as exploited and abused as those in any other colony of the British Empire. Yet, by the eve of the First World War, Dublin had become the home of a trade union movement so threatening to big business that they confronted it in a bruising six-month conflict. This conflict tested the resolve of all involved to breaking point and coloured the politics of Ireland for generations.

The 1913 Dublin lockout is an extraordinary episode in history that has been written about quite widely in the past. Yet most authors have normally ignored a number of big questions. Why was the Dublin-based Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) so much more militant and politically advanced than any equivalent in Britain? Was it inevitable that the ITGWU would be defeated? What was the real long-term effect of the lockout on Ireland's labour and national liberation movements?

John Newsinger provides a new perspective on the period by looking at questions that have frequently been ignored. Rebel City attempts to locate events that fit into a worldwide picture of class struggle. The author analyses the politics and strategies of the fiery union leader James Larkin and the inspiring Marxist writer James Connolly, rather than focusing on the personalities of these key figures.

The early days of the ITGWU are nothing short of inspiring. Formed when British-based unions shied away from organising unskilled workers in Ireland, it put its faith in working class action rather than class collaboration and it talked openly of socialism. The ITGWU didn't limit itself to economic concerns - it was an intensely political organisation that produced a widely circulated newspaper, Irish Worker, and was committed to arguing for issues like Irish republicanism and women's suffrage. Its rise horrified the wealthy, none more so than Dublin's native Catholic and Nationalist capitalists. National brotherhood was the first thing to be swept aside in their drive to punish the rebellious workers, an utterly ruthless scheme from which other sections of the establishment recoiled. They employed mass starvation, the importation of scabs, sponsored police riots and the church as an ideological battering ram.

The Dublin workers stood up bravely against the onslaught, but were unable to win due to their isolation. Newsinger argues that the response of the left in Britain was crucial. Socialists across Britain, particularly those associated with the Daily Herald, threw themselves into solidarity campaigns, but were unable to overcome the betraying instinct of the reformist leaders.

The second part of the book looks at the effect the defeat of the ITGWU would have on Ireland, particularly during the crucial years leading up to independence. Although official Irish history prefers to forget this, Ireland was caught up in the post-1917 working class struggle like the rest of western Europe. The much celebrated War of Independence was accompanied by no small amount of class war. Yet, by 1923, the 'Irish Free State' had brought the workers to heel in a way that the British Empire could only admire.

The role of the working class in the history of Irish independence is not the easiest issue to encapsulate in a single book, but Rebel City manages to tell its tale enjoyably and clearly.