Add new comment

Submitted by martin on Wed, 26/03/2008 - 07:21

THE IRISH WORKERS' UNION AND THE CATHOLIC ESTABLISHMENT IN BRITAIN - by Sean Matgamna

I undertook to back up the summary comment I made about the attitude of the Catholic Establishment in Britain to the Irish Workers Union.

First, let me repeat: I do not think the hopes and expectations which the Catholic Establishment had for the IWU can be seen as decisive in characterising that organisation. As John Palmer says, rationally, and especially if they could have foreseen how it would develop, they should have been more hostile to the IWU than to the CP and its “Connolly Association” tool. In fact, they saw the new organisation as the declared enemy of their world-wide enemy, “Godless Communism”, and of the other Communists, the Trotskyists. That's what the Secretary of the IWU, Michael Callinan said it was.

This was a time when the Trotskyists had received more notice in the bourgeois press than for 15 years, in part as a result of the trade union activity of Brian Behan on the South Bank building sites (where, of course, many of the militant workers were Irish). The SLL had recently been proclaimed as an open organisation—in February 1959 — and immediately proscribed by the Labour Party.

In the Catholic Herald of February 5, 1960, under the headline: "THE ANSWER TO CONNOLLY CLUBS",under a smaller headline — "IRISH WORKERS FIGHT BACK", Douglas Hyde, interviewed "IWU leader", Michael Callinan. Hyde, who was usually billed as a "former editor of the Daily Worker", the CP daily now published as the Morning Star, was the British and Irish Catholics' leading popular polemicist against "Communism". He was the British equivalent of the American, Luis Budenz, one-time editor of the CPUSA's Daily Worker, who broke with the CP in the mid-forties (Hyde broke in 1948, I think). Hyde was author of a book, "I Believed", about his experience in the CPGB and Communist Party operations in the labour movement.

He introduced Michael Callinan as one who had been a Labour candidate in the 1958 municipal election in Paddington, and who had also stood "some years ago for the Australian Labor Party (non-Communist)" in "the State Parliamentary Elections. In Australia... He had found himself fighting both the Communists and Dr. Evatt's Labour Party." He now, Hyde told his readers, fights both Communists and Trotskyists. He quoted Michael Callinan:

"I know that our emphasis on the Irish workers and our strong Labour bias will not be to everyone's taste, but in my view you can only defeat the activities of of bodies like the Connolly Association by attacking from a leftward position".

Callinan told Hyde that there was a type of Irish worker in Britain who ignores warnings [from the priests] and whose attitude is: "I don't mind if it is Communist so long as it is both Irish and socialist".

Callinan told Hyde that the Connolly Association was divided, and that he had first tried to split it from within. From CA platforms, he had condemned the suppression of Hungary [1956] and the Chinese invasion of Tibet [1959]. He had resigned when Willie Gallagher [long-time CPer and a former CP MP] came to speak at a meeting with which he was associated.

The first aim of the IWU, Callinan told Hyde was "to promote amongst Irish Workers an appreciation of democratic socialist politics... Members of the C P and its auxiliary organisations... are not eligible for membership of the I W U."

Irish socialism, said Callinan, is a thing of co-operatives and credit-unions "of the type developed by St Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia".

The Trotskyists would like to capture the IWU, Callinan said, but they are unwelcome. One of the IWU leaders [Pat O'Donovan, I guess] had already been expelled as a Trotskyist. The IWU, Hyde reported, had rooms at the top of an old house at Colebrook Road, Islington.

His statement about the need to attack the Stalinists from the left might be either a declaration that the politics he professed were to him just a convenient flag under which to make war on "communism", or Callinan pitching his poitics at more right wing people. Everything I know about him, including his subsequent history, suggests it was the latter.

The kind of "anti-Communism" expressed by Callinan is that of genuine horror at truly horrible things. I don't know exactly how Callinan's membership of political parties and standing in elections squares with his reputation and – I think: I knew him very slightly in the 1970s — sometimes, at least, self-description as a syndicalist.

In fact, of course, historical syndicalism came in many varieties. The Irish syndicalists, Larkin and Connolly and William O'Brien, were syndicalists because they put industrial unionism at the centre of their conception of the conquest of working class power and the transition to socialism — but they did not reject political action; in 1912 they founded the Irish Labour Party as the political arm of the union.

Sean Matgamna

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.