Marking the centenary of its emergence, Sean Ledwith looks at the history of the Limerick soviet
For most people today the word ‘soviet’ conjures up images of Russia in 1917 with workers, soldiers and peasants bringing down the tsar and forming the world’s first socialist state. In the immediate aftermath of that epochal achievement, however, the concept of the soviet - or workers’ council - spread around the world and was embraced by the oppressed in multiple countries. One of the most remarkable examples of this emancipatory contagion occurred in Ireland in the city of Limerick one hundred years ago.
Britain’s oldest colony at that time was in the throes of a nationalist rebellion that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Republic of Ireland a few years later. For a brief period before partition in 1921, however, the military resistance to British occupation from the IRA merged with mass workers’ struggle from below to create one of the most advanced examples of class consciousness ever seen in the British Isles. Inspired by their counterparts in Russia, workers in Limerick spontaneously formed a soviet in April 1919, which took control of the city and ran its economy and services in defiance of the British colonial power. The city was not an isolated case and became the epicentre of a remarkable wave of soviets that sprang up around Ireland in the midst of what became known as the War of Independence. An estimated 100 workers’ council were formed across the country in the period following WW1.
Following the defeat of the 1916 Easter Rising, the British imposed a regime of repression in Ireland in an attempt to stem the tide of the movement for independence. The execution of sixteen of the Easter rebels, however, provoked a level of resistance that the colonial power would find ultimately impossible to hold down. The nationalist forces of Sinn Fein and the IRA dominated the campaign for Irish independence but the country was also host to an advanced labour movement that had spawned the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and James Connolly’s left-wing Irish Citizens Army. Connolly’s execution in 1916 had robbed the Irish left of its most dynamic leader but the layers of trade union organisation and consciousness he had promoted remained intact as the campaign against British occupation escalated in the aftermath of WW1.
For a time, this progressive class consciousness was even able to bridge the sectarian divide in the North of Ireland as Catholic and Protestant workers united in Belfast in early 1919 to form the first soviet. At the same time as better known uprisings in Berlin and Glasgow, the working class of Ireland’s industrial powerhouse sent a shiver down the collective spine of the ruling class. Spearheaded by Belfast’s engineers and shipyard workers pursuing a shorter working week, the soviet brought the city to a standstill for the first few months of 1919. A reporter for the Manchester Guardian observed:
'Soviet' has an unpleasant sound in English ears, and one uses it with hesitation; but it nevertheless appears to be the fact that the Strike Committee have taken upon themselves, with the involuntary acquiescence of the civic authority, some of the attributes of an industrial soviet.
Shoot to kill
In April, the soviet model surfaced in Limerick. The trigger was the shooting of local IRA activist, Robert Byrne. He had been arrested in January and had organised a hunger strike among other Republican prisoners to demand political status. Byrne’s comrades in the IRA outside prison arranged a rescue attempt in early April but the operation left its target fatally injured. Many in the wider population believed the pro-British Royal Irish Constabulary deliberately targeted Byrne as part of a shoot-to-kill policy. Ten thousand people turned a couple of days later as Byrne’s tricolour-draped coffin was laid to rest. Tension was already high in the area as the IRA’s guerrilla campaign against British occupation was intensifying.
The senior British commander in Ireland, General Griffin, panicked and issued an order for de facto martial law in Limerick and its environs. Griffin sent extra troops into the city and initiated a permit system that required every person travelling into or out of the are to possess approved identification. On the 13th, the local trades’ council, representing 25 local trade unions, met to discuss its response. The outcome was the historic declaration of the Limerick Soviet, created in explicit defiance of Griffin’s order and with the conscious intention of supplanting British power. The following day the newly formed strike committee issued the following decree:
The workers of Limerick, assembled in Council, hereby declare cessation of all work from 5 am on Monday April 14, 1919, as a protest against the decision of the British Government in compelling them to procure permits in order to earn their bread.
For almost two weeks from that point, onwards the Limerick Soviet conducted the affairs of the city. The episode achieved global publicity as, coincidentally; many international journalists were assembled there for a pioneering attempt to cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane. Fifteen thousand workers were involved in the shutdown across a range of industries and services including the trains, banks, retail, hotels and the post office. The Soviet ensured that the forces of the colonial power were stalled but not at the expense of the welfare of the city’s 40 000 inhabitants. Food shops were permitted to open for a few hours in the afternoon but could only sell at prices capped by the Soviet. A consignment of imported Canadian grain was appropriated from the docks and distributed among the population. Transportation in and out the city was run entirely on the basis of a permit system organised by the Soviet itself-much to the chagrin of Griffin whose crude attempt at his own version had provoked the conflict.
It was widely observed that the only sector of local industry not interrupted was the printworks-but only because it was involved in producing a daily strike bulletin in the name of the Soviet. Perhaps most impressively, the political consciousness of those involved was such that they started to organise a local currency to replace the British version.
The Soviet at its peak was able to draw on support not just from the labour movement of the city but also significant sections of the middle class aswell. The draconian measures of the British forces across the country had alienated elements of the business community who felt it was time for homegrown elite to run the economy. The Soviet also initially attracted the support of some grassroots Catholic clerics who perceived it as fulfilling the New Testament message of helping the poor. A correspondent for the Daily Express articulated the fear inspired by the Soviet among the ruling class:
The city is as much in military occupation as Cologne...There is nothing comparable with the situation today, outside certain Continental European countries. The leadership mean to win, and it certainly seems as if the workers of Ireland were with them... I have witnessed many strikes in England but never one bearing any resemblance to this. It is the grand slam, and it suggests possibilities on which it is not pleasant to ponder.
The Church strikes back
The diversity of support enjoyed by the Soviet in its early stages, however, turned out to be one of the sources of its undoing. Middle class elements sympathetic to the orthodox nationalism of Sinn Fein began to turn away as the dispute entered its second week in accordance with that organisation’s ideology of prioritising the campaign for independence ahead of social and economic agitation. Clerics on the ground may have expressed solidarity with the aims of the strikers but the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church eventually re-established control and started to denounce the similarities between the Limerick Soviet and its counterparts backed by the officially atheistic regime in the USSR.
End of the experiment
The ultimate downfall of this remarkable experiment in workers’ democracy was caused by the uneven political consciousness of the same trade union movement that had spawned it. Unlike the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow, the leadership of the Limerick version remained tied to the official trade union bureaucracy, in their case that of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC). Despite their audacity in creating the soviet, the local leadership also lacked a figure of Lenin’s calibre, rooted in the revolutionary movement for decades and with an independent organisation under his command that could realistically challenge for power. It was clear to many that, after a fortnight of dual power in the region, a decisive confrontation with the armed power of the British state would be necessary if the Soviet was to sustain its control of the city. William O Brien, treasurer of the ILPTUC, however, perceived the effectiveness of the soviet model was as much a threat to the authority of the established trade union machine as it was to the British colonial power.
In addition to his own reservations about the situation in Limerick, O Brien came under pressure from the middle class leaderships of Sinn Fein and the Catholic Church to ensure the spectre of workers’ power was put firmly back in the bottle and did not threaten their hegemony of the campaign for national freedom. When the instruction to abandon the dispute came from the ILPTUC, the local executive of the Limerick Soviet lacked the self-confidence and tradition of independent activity to defy O Brien. On the 27th April, workers in the city were left with no choice but to return to work and to carry the hated permits that General Griffin had tried to force on them two weeks earlier.
The Limerick Soviet was a glorious chapter in the history of the Irish working class but also, tragically, represented a missed opportunity. Subsequently the struggle against British rule was dominated by the narrowly nationalist agenda of Sinn Fein and the focus on exclusively military activity in the hands of the IRA. The ability of Irish workers to shape the direction of the anti-colonial struggle was gradually suppressed and social and economic questions were marginalised. Instead of evolving into a class war that could have ignited the rest of the UK, the Irish War of Independence culminated in the double disasters of partition and civil war that stunted national development for decades. Nevertheless, the Limerick Soviet should primarily be remembered as a spectacular vindication of James Connolly’s vision of permanent revolution in Ireland. If he had lived to see it - and even helped lead it - the fears of the British ruling class may have been realised in 1919.
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