When Labour called for a Workers’ Republic

David Worth looks back to when Labour’s radical words put them in the clerical firing line.

After the 1933 election, Labour was left with its lowest number of seats ever. Their spell in government as the junior partners of Fianna Fáil had seen much of their programme implemented. When Fianna Fáil called a snap election, voters left the Labour Party in droves in favour of de Valera’s party. Labour was left with a choice; either to lose its place as Ireland’s third party or adopt a new programme to try to win back the working class voters it lost to Fianna Fáil. This would lead to the party adopting the establishment of a ‘Workers’ Republic’ as its goal.

‘Workers’ Republic’ was the name of the magazine which James Connolly had produced before the Easter Rising of 1916. By adopting its title as their aim, they were harking back to their founder, but the beliefs of the membership of the party in the 1930s were very different to those of Connolly. One thing that they did have in common with Connolly was that they were often on the defensive against sustained attacks from the clergy who were suspicious of Labour’s use of class politics. William Norton often declared his Catholic faith loudly as he defended himself and his party from accusations of Communism and Atheism, declaring at the 1936 Labour Party conference that ‘as a Catholic worker’, admonitions warning Irish workers of the dangers of ‘Godless communism’ betrayed ‘a deplorable want of faith in the deep-seated religious convictions of the Irish working class’. 

The party’s adoption of their new constitution could not have come at a worse time for Labour. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 had seen the left-leaning Republican government of Spain face down a rebellion by a coalition of Monarchists, Fascists and Catholic Conservatives. The Church, firmly opposed to the secular agenda of the Republic, portrayed this as a struggle between good and evil. Sermons regularly denounced the left-wing government in Madrid and newspapers such as the Irish Catholic and the Irish Independent relished in giving its readers sensationalised accounts of Republican atrocities against the priests and nuns of Spain. 

“The Spanish Civil War exposed deep divisions between the party’s left and right wings”

The already fragile left in Ireland was now open to even greater attacks from their opponents. Although the Labour Party went to great lengths to distance itself from the Republican side, the Church used the war as an opportunity to attack any left-wing tendencies within the Labour movement. While Fearghal McGarry described Labour’s policy within the Dáil as ‘don’t mention the war’, this does not give us the whole picture on how the party’s diverse membership reacted to the conflict. The party’s leadership was not afraid to loudly denounce fascism, with William Norton designating a large portion of his address at the 1937 conference to ‘the menace of fascism’ and criticising those ‘who are enamoured of what they call a corporative state’. 

Although he was a member of the Knights of Columbanus, an organisation dedicated to the promulgation of Catholic teaching, this put Norton in direct conflict with the Catholic social teaching of the day which was detailed in the encyclical Quadragesimo anno

Conor Cruise O’Brien, then a young delegate from the Trinity Branch of the party, went even further by attacking the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War as a ‘clique of Fascist generals’ that were ‘wantonly waging a civil war against their own people for its own ends’. He would go on to say that the rebellious generals were backed by Spanish millionaires and by ‘International Fascism with German and Italian troops’. More controversially though, he finished by saying that ‘Every country which valued its freedom had a duty to hold out against the forces of Fascism in all their forms, even in Spain’. 

This provoked protests from other delegates to the conference, with Gerrard L. McGowan, one of the party’s TDs, saying that ‘he felt that he would be lacking in his duty as a citizen and as a Catholic if he did not enter a protest’. Another TD went even further in supporting the Francoist cause. Michael Keyes, TD for Limerick, had spoken at rallies for the Irish Christian Front which was founded in August 1936 by Alexander McCabe ‘to help the stricken people of Spain in their struggle against the forces of international Communism’. Keyes had praised the Irish Christian Front in its efforts to ‘bring into existence in this country a social and economic system based on the Christian ideals of life as expressed in the Papal encyclicals and thereby to overcome the evils of socialism which are altogether contrary to Christian principles. 

The Dublin North-West branch of the party submitted a resolution condemning Keyes at the next party conference for sharing a platform with the Irish Christian Front because they ‘called for the suppression of all bodies advocating the Irish Workers’ Republic- the declared objective of the Labour Party’. 

Here again the Spanish Civil War exposed deep divisions between the party’s left and right wings. The motion to censure Keyes was withdrawn after he implausibly claimed that he was unaware of the political programme of the Irish Christian Front even though it was well known that Patrick Belton, the group’s leader had said that ‘he took his hat off to Hitler’. 

Interestingly, the Tipperary branch of the party proposed an amendment to the resolution, saying that they approved of Deputy Keyes’ actions. Later, in a resolution condemning Fascism, they proposed to amend it with a condemnation of ‘Godless Communism’ because as ‘Fascism enslaved the body’ Communism went one step further by enslaving ‘the body and soul’. Norton, conscious of the anti-communist hysteria, which he said ‘has become fashionable over the last twelve months’, still dismissed this motion as there was really very little danger that the Irish working class would succumb to Communism. 

John Gill of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union wondered ‘Why, alone among all of the parties, was The Labour Party asked every day in the week and every week in the year, to condemn something which everyone knew it hated’. The constant attacks on the party’s tentative steps towards a socialist programme did not just come from within the party, but much vitriol was poured on the party from the Catholic press and clergymen who were particularly riled up because of the ongoing conflict in Spain. The party and its leadership would do their best to counter these attacks and try to pre-empt them by avoiding any controversies relating to religion or the Church.

The party’s reluctance to take a pro-Franco stance deepened the anti-communist press’ suspicions of it, while the clear evidence of internal division made it look like the party could be pressured to abandon its commitments to socialism. The party’s stated goal of a ‘Workers’ Republic’ now made it a target for the Irish press who had long been suspicious of Labour but now had a stick to beat them with as they abandoned bland pink rhetoric. Newspapers such as the Limerick Leader, Standard, the Irish Rosary and the Irish Catholic led the attack on Labour after the conference, with the Limerick Leader describing the party’s constitution as ‘Communistic in aim, origin and tendency’. 

“Horrified at the idea of the Holy Father hearing about his alleged plans to create a Soviet Ireland, Norton wrote a letter to the Papal Secretary of State”

These newspapers held considerable sway at the time with the Standard enjoying a circulation of 50,000 a week. Labour was apparently on the slippery slope towards Communism and the Irish Catholic wrote an exposé stating that 204,000 Irish workers affiliated to the ITUC were ‘tacit supporters of Communism’. What made matters worse for Labour was that this article was reprinted in the Vatican’s own newspaper Osservatore Romano. 

Horrified at the idea of the Holy Father hearing about his alleged plans to create a Soviet Ireland, Norton wrote a letter to the Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli repudiating the claims made in the Irish Catholic. The article was eventually retracted after Norton’s pleading with the Cardinal to ‘consult a recognised Catholic authority qualified to interpret authoritatively such tendencies’. This invitation to the hierarchy to meddle with the party’s policy caused some annoyance to former leader Thomas Johnson who said that ‘I for one will have to reconsider my position as a member’ if it happened again.

The campaign against the Labour Party was not confined to the press but was also taken up by groups of anti-communist activists who saw no difference between the goals and beliefs of the Irish Labour Party and the Communist Parties of Europe. An anonymous report was circulated amongst these activists in the autumn of 1937. Most likely written by Fr. Denis Fahey, this report was an assessment of the threat posed by a variety of groups in Ireland from the Communist Party of Ireland to the so-called ‘Jewish Secret Societies’. 

The Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions came under particular scrutiny because, unlike the other groups named whose ‘revolutionary purpose is made plain to every member and publicly avowed’, the leadership of the Labour Party denies its ‘revolutionary character’ and ‘point to certain resolutions of fidelity to Christian teaching passed at their meetings as proof to the contrary’. 

Labour’s regular use of Catholic social teaching and quotations from encyclicals were to no avail, they would always be regarded with suspicion by those committed to destroying any organisation not committed to the preservation of the current class system. Labour would strike back at this report in its publication Labour News stating that ‘Religious poison pen links Labour, Communism, Nudism, Jewry, Freemasonry in this diabolical “report”. This rebuttal of the report was published in Labour News at the request of ‘clergymen who recognised low sectarian frenzy and pogrom-purpose in the authorship of this document’. This is unlikely to have been true as Labour News had a reputation with clashing with the clergy on a number of issues but the need they felt to show that they had at least some clerical approval before attacking this report shows the almost unassailable power of the clergy. Labour News would be forced to cease publication because its frequent belligerence against the clergy would become too much for a leadership fearful of the repercussions of the editor’s taste for controversy.

The goal of a ‘Workers’ Republic’ remained a point of contention throughout this and in 1938, at the request of Michael Linehan, treasurer of the INTO and a prominent Catholic Actionist, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church came to the conclusion that sections of the party’s constitution conflicted with Catholic teaching. Interestingly this was an example of the bishops assembling a ‘committee of experts’ at the behest of a member of the laity to investigate a matter such as this. 

At the 1939 annual conference of the Labour Party, the INTO put forward an amendment to delete the aim of a ‘Workers’ Republic’ and to replace it with the aim of creating a ‘Democratic Republic’ founded on ‘Christian principles’. In the debate that followed, some questioned the right of the bishops to force their will on the party and others pointed out that the hierarchy ‘had been against nearly all popular movements’. The debate had the potential to be extremely damaging as it set both wings of the party against each other, potentially leading to a split. The amendment to remove the ‘Workers’ Republic’ from the constitution was passed 89-25 and with it passed Labour’s last attempt to adopt socialist policies until the 1960s.

While the ‘intellectual terrorism’ of the 1930s can be blamed for Labour abandoning this shift to the left, this does not show the full picture as it was the party’s own members who appealed to the bishops to intervene and condemn the language used in the party’s 1936 constitution. While adopting left-wing language, the party’s policies and its members’ actions remained the same. These opportunist attempts to maintain a separate identity from Fianna Fáil after the party had adopted much of Labour’s social programme while in government should be treated with suspicion. Lenin had attacked the Second International for adopting radical slogans but not carrying out these slogans, saying that ‘the point is to test their sincerity, to compare their words with their deeds’. When the time came for Labour’s words to be tested they quickly abandoned their commitments to establishing a ‘Workers’ Republic’.