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Jack O'Connor oration at Sligo Dock strike commemoration

Date Released: 29 August 2013

Oration by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, on Thursday 29th August, 2013 at the graveside of trade unionist, Patrick Dunbar, who was murdered by strike breakers on 10th March 1913 while participating in the Sligo Dock Strike against the Sligo Steam Navigation Company.

We are here to remember our comrade Patrick Dunbar who was foully murdered by strike breakers exactly one hundred years ago this year.  Patrick was martyred for committing the simple offence of insisting on the right as a working person to be treated with respect and dignity, the right to a voice in the workplace, the right to participate in collective bargaining. 

We are here as well to remember all the others – the members of the National Union of Sailors and Firemen and the Dockers who were members of Jim Larkin’s incipient Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union who participated in that struggle against the Irish Steam Navigation Company over 56 days in that seminal year.  And we are here as well to remember their loved ones, the women and the children who ran the gauntlet of starvation, imprisonment and exclusion to bring that struggle to a successful conclusion.

While remembering them we are here as well to express our debt of gratitude to those heroic men and women of 1913 whose courage and whose sacrifice then and many others over the decades that followed, bequeathed to us the degree of national independence and the quality of life in the Ireland of today.

All that being said, we owe it to those who participated in the heroic struggles of 1913 to challenge the revisionist portrayal of their endeavours as some kind of curtain raiser for the subsequent decade of national rebellion.  True – the events of that year did play into, precipitate and form the character of the insurrection of 1916 in which James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army played a central role and in which Liberty Hall itself featured as the headquarters of the leaders in the weeks leading up to the Rising.  But 1913 was part of a wider egalitarian Movement which saw the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of workers across the UK and the developed world in the years between 1910 and 1914. 

It was a period, for example, which saw the number of workers involved in strikes in Britain soar to 515,000 in 1910, 962,000 in 1911 and 1.5 million in 1912. 

This was not simply an intensification of industrial battles around pay and conditions of employment - although it certainly was that.  It was also informed by a grander aspiration, enlightened by the new Trade Unionists of the 1880s, which extended to notions of a decent life, access to education, to healthcare, to proper housing and even a say in the architecture of the future. It was a Movement characterised by the participation for the first time, although not exclusively, of unskilled workers such as carters, dockers, servants and others.

This was the aspect of its character that William Martin Murphy and his contemporaries among the Dublin employers set out to crush with brutal force later that year. 

Their endeavour saw the employment of all the institutions of authority from the Police to the Courts to the Gaols, to the media which they largely controlled and the established churches, to the ultimate instrument of economic blackmail – starving little children to the point of death.  All this was to suppress the aspiration of the poor to a legitimate say in the shape of the future.  Far from the onset of a nationalist rebellion, the 1913 Lockout was a war waged by the rich against the poor.  It was not a case of the old enemy, England, supressing the Irish.  It was planned and executed from beginning to end by wealthy Irish people against their fellow citizens in order to deprive them of the most fundamental right to Freedom of Association so as to ensure that they would have no say in the evolution of post-Home Rule Ireland.

Indeed, far from the simplistic English versus Irish portrayal, it was thanks to the solidarity of hundreds of thousands of British working men and women who contributed generously every week to the collections organised by the TUC, along with others across this island, including the people who won out in the Sligo dock strike and elsewhere, that ensured Murphy and his henchmen did not succeed in crushing the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.  However, they did manage to ensure that the egalitarian ideas premised on the basis of the primacy of the common good which inspired Larkin, Connolly and the others who led the resistance would not influence public policy in the independent State which emerged from that decade of rebellion.

The tragedy of it is that despite the heroic role played by the Citizen Army in 1916, despite their martyrdom and the sacrifices of thousands of Trade Unionists in the War of Independence, despite the great general strike against conscription on the 23rd April 1918, despite the munitions strike which extended from May until December 14th 1920 crippling the British military operation across the country and despite all the efforts we have made in all the years that followed, public policy in both jurisdictions on this island has been formulated almost exclusively in the image of the interests of William Martin Murphy and his kind.  Indeed, the most graphic illustration of this is that even to this day working men and women in this Republic are still denied the legal right to collective bargaining, without which the European Court of Human Rights has held the right to Freedom of Association to be meaningless (and we are only one of three countries in the entire European Union in which this remains the case).  And notwithstanding the passage of time, workers seeking to vindicate their human right to Freedom of Association must still run the gauntlet of intimidation, victimisation and dismissal and being deprived of their livelihoods exactly as it was in 1913.

Sadly, the consequences of constructing public policy by reference to the imperatives of greed are now clear for all to see as it has resulted in our third major existential crisis in 60 years as a sovereign state.

Things unfolded differently in Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, itself incidentally the result of the last time a one sided austerity experiment was tried in several major countries at once.  The great compromise between Capital and Labour which became known as the post-war settlement respected the rights of working people all over the Continent to participate in Collective Bargaining, in one form or another, with their employers on the distribution of the benefits of their output.  And the historical record shows that the same post-war settlement ultimately resulted in an enormous increase in productivity and economic growth such that Western Europe saw the most dramatic enhancement of living standards and quality of life in all of human history.

Sadly, we have now entered a new dark chapter in the unfolding story of the peoples of Europe and of wider humanity.  Once again blind faith in the myth of the market and those who dominate the citadels of high finance capital has resulted in a spectacular collapse on a global scale. And once again the tragic mistakes of the past are being repeated with the socialisation of private debt and reliance on brutal one-sided austerity simultaneously across an entire Continent. Those at the top of the establishment in Germany and the other creditor countries are in the process of executing a complex juggling act as they seek to ensure that their banking systems are spared the consequences of crystalising losses incurred as a result of reckless lending during the bubble years, by inflicting misery on the working people and the less well off in the debtor countries on the periphery. 

This strategy seeks to shore up their banks while insulating their own populations and themselves from the consequences of irresponsible lending.

All this entails a full frontal assault on the gains made by working people, the destruction of public provision and the dismantlement of Collective Bargaining infrastructures to the extent that the concept of entitlement to Freedom of Association is increasingly rendered meaningless, for workers at least.  The greatest tragedy of all of this is that it will not work anymore than it worked in the tragic aftermath of the Wall Street Crash throughout the 1930s.  It is a policy which at best will deliver only prolonged stagnation and anaemic growth interspersed periodically by recurring false dawns which will always be heralded as “the end of the Recession”.  Indeed all the indications would suggest we are entering one such false dawn now.

So the essential right to Collective Bargaining, to Freedom of Association, for which Patrick Dunbar gave his life, is not some issue that can be safely consigned to the bad old days. 

The Right to Organise, to Freedom of Association, to participate in Collective Bargaining, to respect and dignity at work, to be heard and listened to, is as relevant today as it was when Patrick Dunbar was laid to rest in this place 100 years ago.  And while we are here to honour his memory, to pay homage to his courage and his sacrifice and to the others, the men, the women and the children too, whose solidarity with each other resulted in victory in the Sligo Dock Strike of 1913, we insist in reiterating our commitment to those same aspirations and we are inspired by the memory of Patrick Dunbar and that of the others too.

However, it is not sufficient to stop at that.  Patrick Dunbar and those who stood with them did not have to confront the globalisation of capital and the way it has so dramatically shifted the balance against organised working people over the past quarter of a century.  They had one other great advantage as well – ironically it was the fact that they found themselves in the place that they had nothing to lose. 

Today thanks to them and to the generations of trade unionists who followed them, working people in Ireland still have a great deal to lose, notwithstanding the ground that has been conceded over the past five years. 

Therefore, it is not sufficient for us to pay homage to the memory of the heroic fighters of the past, not sufficient to assemble at sacred places such as this in pursuit of inspiration.  We have to face today’s challenges equipped with the tools of tomorrow. It is not sufficient to attempt to discharge our obligations to working people and their families relying on the tools of the late 19th and 20th Century.  The trade unionists of those times had the courage and the vision to discard the narrow infrastructure of their day, building new national unions such as the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union here in this country and we in turn must do the same.  Solidarity is still the key and that is why we must fashion a new Movement uniting all trade unions which embraces the capacity of every profession, trade and occupation.   

We are building the Nevin Institute to challenge the dominance of today’s William Martin Murphys and their kind over the generation of ideas and we must complement it with a new Workers’ College to challenge their colonisation of academe.  We must also develop a communications capacity capable of challenging their hegemony over the dissemination of news, information and the conduct of public debate.  

Simultaneously, we must build an industrial capacity which is capable of co-ordinating collective bargaining and organising across every sector of the economy backed by dynamic properly resourced local Trade Union Centres in every town, run by vibrant Trades Councils, to ensure that no worker can any longer be rendered defenceless as a powerless individual without even the right to representation in circumstances where their employer holds all the cards.

These are the tasks we face today.  The issue is being hotly debated within the Trade Union Movement as we speak. 

The outcome will decide as to whether working people and their families have the capacity to exercise any influence in the architecture of the future of post-collapse Ireland or whether it is to be designed exclusively in the image of those whose sole preoccupation is the accumulation of profit to the exclusion of every social and human consideration.  This is the proper way to remember Comrade Patrick Dunbar and all the other martyrs and to ensure that they did not give their lives in vain.


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