100 years ago Ireland was rocked by a conscription crisis that culminated in a General Strike. To launch Rebel’s Radical History series, Paul O’Brien takes a look at this historic period.
During the 2014 centenary ‘celebrations’ of the Great War it seemed that having a grandfather or relative who fought, or preferably died, in the Great War was the latest must-have fashion accessory for the readers of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. In those newspaper features the poems of Francis Ledwidge and Tom Kettle were invoked to present the heroic sacrifice of the 200,000 who answered the call to arms and the 50,000 who died that Catholic Belgium might be saved from the ‘Hun’.
The reality for those who enlisted was very different. This was killing on an industrial scale. Half of the people who died have no known grave. High explosive shells turned many of the dead into dust. Even the term commemoration is an injustice to what happened. The invention of the machine gun made a mockery of the concept of tens of thousands of soldiers charging the enemy lines as if it was a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo a hundred years earlier. On the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916 almost 60,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. By the end of the Somme offensive in September over one million people had perished and the front line had been pushed forward by five miles.
In this decade of anniversaries very little attention has been paid to the hundredth anniversary of the general strike in April 1918 protesting against the proposed introduction of conscription in Ireland. The 1916 Rising and its aftermath had transformed public opinion in Ireland, and hammered the first nails into the coffin of the Irish Parliamentary Party, but the conscription crisis of 1918 killed it off almost completely. However, Sinn Féin was not the only possible beneficiary of the militant opposition to the extension of conscription to Ireland. The conscription crisis also revealed to everyone the potential power of the Irish working class, and its ability to shape the future of Irish society, if it was prepared to play a leading role in the unfolding crisis that led to a limited form of independence in 1922.
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, conscription was never extended to Ireland. However, the German offensive in early 1918 had strained the manpower and resources of the British Army to near breaking point. Sir Henry Wilson, the chief of staff, insisted that conscription must be extended to Ireland despite the complete opposition of almost all sections of Irish political opinion. Wilson was determined to force conscription on Ireland even at the cost of civil disturbances. He argued that he needed the men in order to hold the line in France. He was not afraid ‘to take 100,000 to 150,000 recalcitrant conscripted Irishmen into an army of two and a half million, fighting in five theatres of war’. The British Government hoped to appease moderate opinion in Ireland by linking the issue of conscription to that of Home Rule for Ireland. But this was too little, too late—positions had hardened in Ireland and even the feeble Irish Parliamentary Party felt constrained to withdraw from the House of Commons when the Military Service bill was passed on 18 April 1918.
Predictably, Ireland exploded in anger. Two days before the passage of the bill a demonstration against conscription had mobilised nearly 10,000 in Belfast. On 18 April 1918 at a conference in Dublin, which was attended by the representatives of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), it was agreed to launch a nationwide campaign against conscription. Eamon de Valera, the de-facto president of Sinn Féin declared that ‘the passage of the Conscription Bill… must be regarded as a declaration of war on the Irish Nation’. Later that day the Catholic bishops issued a statement which stated that the ‘Irish people have a right to resist’ conscription. Although the crisis was unique in Ireland at the time, it followed similar campaigns in Australia (1916-17) and Canada (1917).
At the special conference of the ITUC on 20 April attended by 1,500 delegates the trade unions put out a call for a general strike against conscription. However, as Conor Kostick points out; no delegate raised any objection to the executive’s identification with the aims of the nationalists, employers, and the bishops:
The general strike was decided upon, but on terms that did not clearly mark out the difference between the aims of labour and the aims of Irish nationalism.
In the North of Ireland this had all the appearance of a pan-nationalist Catholic block, which allowed the Unionists to portray the anti-conscription movement as a nationalist front. As a result the workers in Belfast played little or no part in the strike against conscription. Never the less, the strike was a magnificent success across the rest of the country. On 23 April workers withdrew their labour throughout the country; all factories closed, work ground to a halt in railways, docks, factories, mills, theatres, cinemas, trams, the public service, shipyards, newspapers, shops, munitions factories, even the pubs closed. In attempting to impose conscription in Ireland the British Government had succeeded in uniting against it an assembly of organisations and forces not seen since the days of the United Irishmen.
The success of the strike owed much to the activities of the Trades Councils across the country. Workers took the lead in organising the strike and trade union banners led the marches. The determination of the strikers to resist conscription led the British government to shelve plans for the immediate introduction of conscription to Ireland.
However, when Lord French was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in May 1918 he arrived with a simple agenda; to enforce conscription in Ireland at any cost. The British government published details alleging nationalist collaboration with Germany, the so called ‘German plot’, and promptly arrested and deported to Britain almost the entire leadership of Sinn Féin. Despite the repression and mass arrests by Lord French and the British authorities conscription was never extended to Ireland, and the ongoing stalemate was broken only by the signing of the armistice that ended the war in November 1918.
Role of Labour Movement
The organised labour movement was the leading light in the campaign. This was an opportunity for Labour to flex its muscles and assert itself in a way that had not been seen since the 1913 Lockout. Even the Irish Times acknowledged that ‘April 23rd will be chiefly remembered as the day on which Irish Labour realised its strength’. Eric Strauss, the German historian was one of the first to write about the War and the Anti-Conscription movement in Ireland and how this could have been ‘revolutionary in its consequences’. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor said that: ‘This was the decisive moment at which Ireland seceded from the Union’. In addition, the political capital purchased by James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in the course of the 1916 Rising could have been utilised to build a movement against conscription that put socialist and Labour demands centre stage in the forthcoming fight for Irish independence. In the fight against conscription the separation between workers’ economic demands and political demands was breaking down. The determination of workers to resist conscription gave them confidence to make demands for better pay and conditions. The number of strikes doubled compared to the previous year. But, the opportunity was spurned; the working class were marched up the hill to protest against conscription and then told to return home in case they alienated their protestant brothers and sisters in the North of Ireland. The interests of the officials and the bureaucrats were far more important than mounting a class based opposition to conscription and the fight for a united Irish Republic.
Six months later on 1 November 1918 Labour decided to stand aside in the general election in favour of Sinn Féin, effectively ending any possibility of Labour playing a leading role in the fight for independence. Their gesture of support was not returned by Sinn Féin, who criticised Labour for being led by ‘men with English accents’ and being influenced by ‘English Socialists coming over to Ireland’. And so once again the Labour bureaucracy had refused the bold stroke at the right moment, and we are paying the price ever since.