Powerful teachers’ strike on 4 February 2020

A blackboard with thick white letters saying: STRIKE!
Teachers will be on strike 5 February 2020.
On 5 February 2020, 19,000 TUI members will strike and close over 400 second-level schools

On 4 February 2020, hundreds of second-level schools closed as a result of a strike by 19,000 teachers, members of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). These teachers voted by a massive 92% to 8% to engage in a campaign of industrial action. The issue driving teachers to strike is a simple one: people doing exactly the same job should get the same pay. Yet this principle is violated throughout the public sector as a result of savage cuts imposed by the Fine Gael / Labour government that formed on 25 February 2011.

A two-tier pay system was put in place that punishes those who took up jobs from 1 January 2011 onwards, as a 10% reduction in basic pay was imposed on new teachers and all new entrants were obliged to start on the bottom point of the pay scale regardless of previous teaching experience. Additional cuts to certain allowances meant new teachers lost up to 15% of their pay. The pay gap in starting salaries between post-2011 teachers and those employed before 2011 is over €4,000 a year even when not taking into account the fact that before 2011 teachers started on the third point of their scale.

Councillor John Lyons talking to TUI pickets outside of Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020. John Lyons is on the left of the picture. Five teachers in thick coats and wearing wooly hats are holding placards: End Pay Discrimination Now, TUI Official Strike, Equal Pay for Equal work.
Councillor John Lyons talking to TUI pickets outside of Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020

Unity among teacher unions is the way to win pay-parity

There are three teaching unions in Ireland, the TUI, the ASTI (Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland) and the INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation), while the latter focus on primary education, they too have been trying to achieve pay parity, by taking a court case to the European Court of Justice, claiming discrimination on the grounds of age. This case was lost so now the hope of INTO members will be that their colleagues in second-level schools win their strike and therefore pave the way for all teachers to win back equal pay. The INTO should also now ballot for strike action on the issue.

For the ASTI, the situation is similar, in that these teachers too consider the issue of ending the two-tier pay system an urgent one, the union describing it as a ‘shocking stain’. Unfortunately for teachers as a whole, the ASTI and the TUI have, up to now, not stood together in tackling the issue.  The ASTI went into battle on the issue in 2016 and were knocked back, having to retreat with only small gains and having incurred punitive costs. The government imposed penalties on ASTI members for having ‘repudiated’ the public service agreement and these penalties amount to some €15million in lost increments and other benefits.

Naturally, ASTI members have a great deal of bitterness about this situation but Independent Left urge them to direct that bitterness at the government not their colleagues. Now is the perfect time to push forward on this issue. This is not so much because of the election – although there is no harm at all getting candidates to commit to restoring pay parity – but more because right throughout the public sector there is a growing mood for action on this issue. The nurses who struck in February 2019 made some gains and, perhaps more importantly, the government was sufficiently worried that they didn’t try to repeat the punishment of imposing penalties. They know public sector workers are much closer to a major revolt across the board than they were in 2016. Since the ASTI took the lead on the issue, three years of rising rents, medical costs, child care costs and a general increase in stressful living has changed the mood of other workers.

ASTI members should be proud of being the first into this battle and welcome the fact that reinforcements are now joining the cause. Ideally, all three teacher unions should co-ordinate strike action on this issue for the same day. At a minimum, teachers have to respect one another’s picket lines.

The ASTI, TUI and INTO leadership cannot officially call for members not to cross picket lines as it is illegal to do so (highlighting the importance of the demand by Councillor John Lyons, who is standing in Dublin Bay North for General Election 2020, that the 1990 Industrial Relations Act be abolished). Independent Left have no such constraint and as we take inspiration from the lives of James Connolly and Jim Larkin, we appreciate how essential is solidarity and respect for picket lines to winning strikes. Moreover, the ASTI have said:

the union will support any member who does not pass a picket should disciplinary action be threatened or taken against them.

They have also asked members not to undertake any duties performed by TUI members and this alone should be sufficient on health and safety grounds to cause many schools to close, even where the numbers of TUI strikers are small.

Independent Left support the TUI strike on 4 February 2020

Probably, over 400 schools will be closed by the strike of 4 February 2020, including the 260 Education and Training Boards’ schools. This strike is a powerful way to bring the campaign for pay parity forward and regardless of who forms the next government, the new cabinet will inherit real pressure to make concessions.

Councillor John Lyons joining the pickets at Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020. John Lyons is on the left, a male teacher is talking to him on the right, holding a green placard with white writing: end pay discrimination now. Behind him a female teacher is mid stride with a red placard and white writing: TUI OFFICIAL STRIKE.
Councillor John Lyons joining the pickets at Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020

From the point of view of parents, having to come up with a contingency arrangement for our children is a challenge. But it is very much in our interests to support the teachers. For one, the low pay in the sector is leaving schools short-staffed. Over ninety percent of secondary schools report difficulty filling posts. More generally, education is in desperate need of an injection of funding. And, of course, the demand of the teachers is an entirely fair one.

This is why Independent Left members went to the picket lines on 4 February to show our support for the striking teachers and we encourage parents and the public to do the same at future strikes.

TUI members at Donahies Community School talking to Councillor John Lyons on the day of their strike for equality in pay, 4 February 2020. Three women teachers and one man in thick jackets are stood in a circle around Councillor John Lyons who is gesturing. Behind them is a wall with a railing on which is a banner for day and evening classes at Donahies Community School.
TUI members at Donahies Community School talking to Councillor John Lyons on the day of their strike for equality in pay, 4 February 2020.
A railing with a banner: Enrolling Now! Day and Evening Classes. Adult Education at Donahies Community School. Below the banner are three TUI placards placed by teachers striking on 4 February 2020.
Independent Left support the teachers in their campaign to overcome the discrimination in pay towards those recruited after 2011.
John Lyons, Independent Left candidate for Dublin Bay North is pictured on the right of a frame that is mostly text. Workers' Rights. Abolish the 1990 Industrial Relations Act and replace it with a Fair Employment Act that guarantees: the rights of union access to all workers; the right to union recognition; full collective bargaining rights. A four day work week to reduce stress and improve quality of life. Solidarity with the French workers campaigning to retain their retirement age at 62. No increase to the pension age in Ireland, with the goal of bringing it down to 62 also.
Councillor John Lyons supports the repeal of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, which hampers workers attempting to organise strikes.
John Lyons, Independent Left candidate for Dublin Bay North is pictured on the right of a frame that is mostly text that has several demands concerning education and concludes: I support the Teachers Union of Ireland strike in secondary schools on 4 February 2020.
Councillor John Lyons, Independent Left candidate for Dublin Bay North in GE 2020 supports the TUI strike of 4 February 2020.

Our education system discriminates against working class communities

Supporting teachers in the struggle to win parity of pay and, indirectly, to improve recruitment and retention rates is just one facet of a radical overhaul of the education system that is needed. As John Lyons highlighted in his election 2020 campaign as candidate in Dublin Bay North, we still have far too many schools under church control. My son goes to one where the principal circulates material against same-sex relationships, material which sees diversity as a plot by the UN to reduce population growth! John Lyons also is drawing attention to the need for meaningful supports to be put in place to allow all children equality of access. Although the government boasts of increase employment for SNAs, the fact that SNA hours have been reduced and the number of children requiring support has increased means the overall service is a long way behind that of 2013, when the Fine Gael – Labour government slashed SNA hours. The recent changes to the resource allocation model of NCSE is a particular disaster for visually impaired children.

Just looking at the school buildings in different parts of the city and your intuition will tell you something is wrong in Irish education. If you stroll past Wesley fee-paying school, for example, you’ll see two resurfaced hockey pitches, two cricket pitches, another for soccer. No less than four for rugby and if you got a glimpse inside you’d see two basketball courts a major hall and a gym. In 2018, Wesley obtained €150,000 from Shane Ross from the Sports Capital Programme to for those resurfaced hockey pitch. And for our kids on Dublin’s north side? Typically they play soccer on tarmac or, as in my son’s school, in a car park.

Research by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography, Maynooth University allows us to visualise the bias in education in Dublin. As he puts it:

There is a wedge of privilege extending southwards from the city centre. If we map the proportion of people going from school to college, the districts with the schools most likely to send students to college form a coherent band on the southside (Dublin postal districts 2, 4, 6, 6W and 14, and the local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown).

A map of Dublin and adjacent counties, with the postal boundaries drawn. D24, 22, 12, 10, 8, 11, 17 and 5 are dark blue, signalling the lowest rates of progress from second to third level education. D15, 7, 9 and 13 are light blue, indicating still very poor rates. D1, 3 and 6W are light green, above average and D2, 6, 4, 14 and DLR are yellow, showing very high progression rates. Copyright Gerry Kearns.
From school to university based on Irish Times feeder data (showing approximately the proportion of the student body going on to third level) Please respect the image copyright. It will be published in due course in chapter by Gerry Kearns, on Dublin as a city arranged by class.

This discrimination can be overcome, but not without a challenge to decades of neglect for our schools from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and their coalition partners.

Childcare Strike 2020 Dublin Wednesday 5 February Was a Huge Success

Independent Left support the planned childcare providers strike on Wednesday 5 February in Dublin. Here a female creche worker sits a table with three young children who have beakers in front of them and are looking at wooden toys on their hands. Foreground right  is a colourful blurry toy.
Independent Left joined the protest of childcare providers in Dublin on Wednesday 5 February 2020.

On Wednesday 5 February thousands of childcare workers went on strike to march in Dublin in protest at the crisis in childcare. Independent Left members fully supported this action. Yes, it was a challenge to arrange alternative childcare for the day but action was urgently needed and the march was a necessity. Not only did the protest show how powerful and united is the sector, but it was met with a hugely positive public response as we all know how the sector needs radical changes.

The state needs to follow the example from the rest of Europe and subsidise childcare, treating it as an essential service, not a for-profit sector.

The march was organised by the Early Years Alliance an organisation facilitated by SIPTU and consisting of workers, providers, unions and parents.

Little Learners Checklist at the Childcare demonstration 5 February 2020. A woman with a Little Learners flag hold a 'checklist' placard with a cross by all the issues of her concern.
Little Learners Checklist at the Childcare demonstration.

I spoke to a childcare worker who participated in the action and shared our childcare policy with her. Her description of her daily life provides a powerful illustration of why this strike was necessary.

My husband starts work at 7.30 a.m. so it’s my job to get the kids up and to school. I have two boys, eight years and three years. I drop my eight-year-old off at the school gates at 8.30 to hang around until 8.50: no other way to get him to school and me to work. I got stuck in traffic on the M50 on my way to work as a childworker. I’m very lucky that my three-year-old attends the same creche as me, so only one drop-off for me.

Today, I got to work with five minutes to spare; I’m usually fifteen minutes early, I have to be. Planning needs to be done, the classroom needs to be set up, etc. I bring my son to his classroom where two staff are already setting up the room, completing planning sheets and general organising of the room for the children’s arrival at 9 a.m. Their shift doesn’t start until 9, we only get paid from 9, yet they’ve been here at least twenty minutes setting up. They are very kind to take my son five minutes early so I can get to my classroom and begin my set up.

As the day goes on, we have a first aid incident. We have a child protection concern. I am organising a Together Old and Young visit to a local nursing home. I speak with a parent who is concerned about her child’s development, all within the first hour-and-a-half. We are told we are short staffed today and full time staff need to take a shorter lunch to accommodate. This is not a bad day, just a regular one in this line of work. I also have to discuss the upcoming protest with parents.

Overall, they are very sympathetic to our cause and those who are able to will arrange other means of childcare for Wednesday 5 February to alleviate some staff to attend the protest.

My shift finishes at 1 p.m. and I go to collect my son. But as usual I don’t leave my room on time because someone always needs something: a hug goodbye, a form signed, a conflict between children that needs resolution or even a staff member who needs to go and use the toilet!

I collect my son and he is full of smiles and chats about what he has done that day. He says a fond goodbye to his teachers as if they were his friends!

All of this is so important in our society and I am sick and tired of feeling the way I do in this sector. Yes, I love my job but hugs and smiles and a child’s positive progress doesn’t pay the bills… never even mind the cost of childcare.

Upon reading your article, admittedly, I had a chip on my shoulder, ready to read about ‘tax breaks’ and ‘extended ecce’. I was nicely surprised. It’s nice to see childcare workers being mentioned more than once and in a positive manner.

Zappone says I should join a union if I have a grievance… my problems are not with the management team of the creche, it’s with the state and the ridiculously high expectations they are putting on me and my colleagues.

Sixteen years I’m working in this sector and I’m losing faith.

Everything that is in the link you sent me is true. The whole sector needs an overhaul, childcare should never be for profit! In all the different positions I’ve had, the worst practice I’ve seen has been in private centres and it is not through the fault of the staff.

Change needs to happen it MUST be done in collaboration with the people who are actually on the ground working directly with the children. All these new schemes sound amazing, but when they are put into practice it just pushes us further and further to breaking point.

Thank you for giving me a bit of hope for the future of my profession.

Valuing Us is Valuing Children: placard on the childcare demonstration
Valuing Us is Valuing Children: placard on the childcare demonstration
 It's time for change: huge turnout for the childcare protest
It’s time for change: huge turnout for the childcare protest
Thousands marched for the childcare sector on 5 February 2020
Thousands marched for the childcare sector
John Lyons of Independent Left stands on the right of a group of childcare workers and parents at the demonstration of 5 February 2020. The demonstrators display a lot of red clothing and have placards around their necks proclaiming: loving my job won't pay my bills! We are professionals, treat us professionally.
John Lyons with childcare protesters 5 February 2020

Councillor John Lyons expressed his full support for the strike.

Parents shouldn’t be paying such high costs for childcare and staff should be given increased pay and a proper career path with full training. This campaign can win and the protest on 5 February is the right way to go about forcing the new government, whoever is in power, to listen and to respond.

A picture of Councillor John Lyons, standing beside text in bullet points:
I support the planned strike by childcare organisations on 5 February 2020. The EECE needs to begin at two years of age and double the hours to 30 per week available twelve months of the year. An increase for each child's capitation grant for accessing creches. A massive increase in investment: a minimum 1 per cent of our overall GDP is needed to create a fully functioning national childcare system. An increase in financial supports to long parents and migrant parents whom are most vulnerable to poverty and isolation. Government needs to create public creche facilities in local communities.
In general election 2020 Councillor John Lyons, standing for Independent Left in Dublin Bay North pledged his support for the Childcare Strike of 5 February and raised several demands on behalf of the sector.
Councillor John Lyons supporting the huge childcare sector march of 5 February 2020
Councillor John Lyons supporting the huge childcare sector march of 5 February 2020

Interview with a community childcare worker ahead of the strike of 5 February 2020

In advance of the strike by childcare workers, I spoke to ‘Anne-Marie’ who works in a community childcare centre.

NMcD: Why are you going on the protest?

A-M: I’m going on the protest to support the early years professionals in the community and private sectors who for years have been under huge pressure, who are not treated as professionals, who are expected to hold the rest of the country by looking after and educating the children; for children with additional needs; for afterschool clubs; for everybody.

For all these years we’ve got very little extra funding, we’ve got more people coming an assessing us and making sure we are doing our jobs. We have, I think, eight different government bodies that come in at the drop of a hat to see what we’re doing and to make sure we are doing everything right. And that’s fine, we’re all about good governance and transparency but it’s just constant.

Then there is new childcare funding, which came out in November, is making it even more difficult for parents and for services to be sustainable. Every couple of years funding gets changed and we never know from one year to the next year if we can be sustainable and continue to run the community service that we run. It’s not good.

We’re a community. So we are middle of the road paid, compared to the girls that are on ten Euro-something an hour but it’s below the Living Wage and it’s not good enough.

NMcD: It’s a community creche that you run here. We’re in an area of economic deprivation in north Dublin. Can you tell me the kind of service that you provide and support you give to families in the area and why it is important that we need to fund community creches?

A-M: This community service has been running for a long time in this area. Like all the other community services out there, particularly in areas with disadvantage, we have children with a lot of additional needs, not just official additional needs but because of their lifestyle and home circumstances. We’ve a lot of homeless children; children whose parents have experienced addiction; who are in recovery; young parents who have left school early. A lot of single mums. And that just puts extra pressure on the children, because of whatever’s going on at home. The children all come here and get a breakfast; they get a proper home-cooked meal. Not everybody is going home to a cooked meal with fresh fruit and vegetables every day. They are really cared for and looked after here. It is the home from home, well that’s what we want it to be. But it’s very difficult to provide that when your funding and constraints are there.

I think in an area like this it should be like a DEIS service, where we have additional staff to provide the care and support that the children need. We have a lot of parents that would come to the office looking for different supports, whether it’s things going on at home. It’s more than just drop your child and run out the door. We provide additional supports: we have a lot of children that are referred to social workers, public health nurses, Focus Ireland. We do support the whole family. We do refer children on to psychologists, speech therapists for additional supports. It’s constant it’s full on.

When you look at the funding over the last few years, for example, the ten years since they put up the ECCE scheme (that’s the three hour sessions per day for the pre-school groups), that’s for thirty-eight weeks per year. When that started ten years ago it was €64.50 per week per child, ten years later it is €69. So that’s an increase of four Euro fifty in ten years. That’s the equivalent of forty-five cent a year. Now we give the children breakfast, we give the children lunch, we have to pay the staff when they are on holiday because it is not covered by the funding, these staff possibly have to go and look for jobs in the summer or sign on in the summer, so that’s a lot of women – predominantly – who are signing on through the summer. We want permanent jobs, proper wages and we want support from the government to make that happen.

NMcD: In an ideal world, how would you like government support to run to make life easier?

A-M: At the moment the inspectors and regulation people that come out to see us are TUSLA, Pobal, Department of Education and Skills, Department of Health, the Revenue, Workplace relations, Building Control and Fire Control. So all these people can come at any point through the day when you are trying to support and look after children. Any of them can come in and look for a huge amount of paperwork. We need one government body to run us and support us and understand. There’s overlapping, so they are looking for that and then the next week someone else can come in the look for basically the same thing. We all want the same thing: we want children to reach their full potential.

Early intervention is the key. We have six children here with undiagnosed additional needs. We won’t get any AIM support staff to support these children until they are three. We have six children that are under two that, in our opinion, have additional needs. That puts extra pressure on staff in the room. Two members of staff with ten children in the room and there could be three or four children with additional needs. Nobody is recognising it. We all talk about early intervention but it’s not happening. If we had an extra member of staff in the room as the DEIS model, we could provide better care for the children.

NMcD: Would you say the waiting lists for children seeking early intervention affects your work as well?

A-M: Definitely. If we’ve got a child and the parent has maybe said, ‘I’m a bit worried about her speech’, it’s fourteen months on the waiting list, depending on when they go on it, then they have to go in for an assessment, then it could be another six months before they are seen and go through a stage of intervention. That child is nearly two years older at that stage. So if you saying it at two, two-and-a-half, that child is nearly at school before they are getting any intervention.

NMcD: And the formation of language is vital in the first three years?

A-M: The first three years is just massive for every area of the development of children. It gives them the bottom of the pyramid. It gives them the basic skills to build on over the years. People think that their child starts their education at school but they start during pregnancy and certainly during the first three years. That’s why it is essential. We have over a hundred children on our waiting list at the moment. We are a seventy children service. Most of those on the waiting list will never see the inside of this building because people stay for four or five years. We are one of the only services in this area that takes children under two. We take children from six months. That’s the early intervention that they need. We need extra staff in each room because the biggest cost to childcare is the staff, and even though they are paid way under what they should be paid, that’s the most important part of your money because ninety percent of your money goes on staff.

NMcD: A final question, how has the feedback been from the parents when they know you are closing on Wednesday for the protest?

A-M: A couple of them are disappointed because obviously they want continuous good quality care for their children. But most of them have been supportive because they understand, because they know us, know what we provide and how essential it is for their children’s development. Also for their own time, headspace and development. So some of the parents will be coming and marching with us. Which is great.

A notice from the wall of a childcare centre reads:
Reminder,
We will be closed all day on Wednesday 5th February for a staff meeting and to take part in the National Early Years Protest.
You are welcome to join us and the thousands of Early Years Professionals who are protesting due to the current childcare crisis in Ireland. We aim to provided professional, quality, affordable childcare in a sustainable, enriching learning environment. We need support from the government to do this!
Many parents supported the childcare strike of 5 February and came on the Dublin protest.

If the new government that forms after the election on 8 February does not respond to the sector, then another day of strikes and protests will be necessary.

The Biggest General Strike in Irish History

A black and white photograph taken during Ireland's biggest general strike. Against a background of the Mountjoy Prison a crowd on the right is faced off against a line of British soldiers and tank on the left. The crowd are mostly men but there are many women, all are wearing caps and hats. Two boys have climbed a pole to get a better view.
Huge crowds gathered outside the Mountjoy Prison in April 1920 during Ireland’s greatest general strike.

On Tuesday 13 April 1920 a general strike took place in Ireland that was by far the greatest strike in Irish history. All over the country there was a complete stoppage and not only that, in some regions and towns the workers took over the running of society, declaring ‘soviets’ and workers’ councils to be in charge. The aim of the strike was to secure the release of prisoners being held by the British authorities in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin and, after two days, the strike ended with a complete victory.

In the early part of 1920, an intense conflict was taking place ­– the War of Independence – between the imperial authorities of the British government and the vast majority of the Irish people. A radicalised Irish population had defeated the threat of conscription at the end of 1918, had voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Féin in the elections of December that year (a party that was determined to bring Ireland out of the empire), and were engaged in a mass popular undermining of all the systems of British rule, through strikes, boycotts and support for the guerrilla campaign of the Irish Republican Army.

On the other side, Britain was still at this time determined not to lose an inch of soil in Ireland. When it came to the conflict in Ireland, the main fear of the British cabinet was that should Ireland achieve independence, this would have disastrous consequences for the rest of the empire.

To quell the mass disobedience of the Irish population, the authorities began a campaign of repression and ‘reprisal’. As part of this campaign, sweeping arrests had resulted in over a hundred men being imprisoned at the Mountjoy without any charge or legal process being directed against them.

The Hunger Strike at Mountjoy Prison, April 1920

A determination sprang up among these prisoners to embark on a hunger strike in protest at their treatment. On 5 April 1920, a core group of thirty-six men refused food. These men were trade unionists, socialists and republicans, sometimes all three combined. Among them was the revolutionary socialist Jack Hedley, who had been arrested in Belfast (with a pamphlet by Lenin in his pocket). The Manchester Guardian’s reporter interviewed a participant of the hunger strike and described him as follows:

A young man, normally engaged as a trade union organiser and he may be taken as a type of the small but rapidly-growing band of idealists to whom the name of James Connolly is constant inspiration… he is as keen that the Irish nation should become a workers’ republic as that it should be a republic at all.

The next day, 6 April, thirty more men joined them as the republicans in the jail promoted the hunger strike. Each day, more prisoners took part, so that five days after the protest had begun there were 91 men on hunger strike in the Mountjoy prison.

Theirs was not just a passive campaign: while they had strength for it, the men broke all the furniture they could, including the doors, and damaged the interior walls. The IRA ordered their more experienced men who had been sentenced (and were in ‘A’ wing) to wreck their cells and bore through the walls from cell to cell. This was a ‘smash-up’ strike and the point was to ensure the hunger strikers could mix together and not be prevented from acting in unison by being locked into their cells. The participants were handcuffed and moved to ‘C’ wing, which they managed to damage significantly also. Those men who had not been identified and sentenced joined the hunger strike but not the smash-up strike. To keep morale high everyone sang socialist and rebel songs, concluding with the ‘Red Flag’.

It wasn’t long before a huge public reaction surged up in response to the hunger strike and it was one of determination to help the men. On Saturday 10 April, people thronged the jail, where an unsuccessful attempt to set fire to a tank took place and the same night the crowds tested the gates to the jail, which withstood their efforts to push against them.

Workers join the protests in large numbers

The following evening, Dublin’s dockers – who were in the middle of their own radical action, a refusal to export food to avert a possible famine – were joined by postal workers and others at the jail to once again attempt at a break-in to free their suffering comrades. British soldiers fixed bayonets and fired shots over their heads but the crowds did not move back. Ireland was on the cusp of witnessing a Bastille Day. Socialists were present, distributing leaflets appealing to the soldiers,  urging them not to attack the demonstrators. A critical moment was approaching. Would the crowds succeed in breaking in? Or would the British soldiers open fire, even at the cost of taking many civilian lives and the consequent political backlash that would accompany such an event?

A faded photograph taken outside the Mountjoy Prison during Ireland's great general strike of 1920. In the foreground are five British soldiers with characteristic Great War gear, including bowl-shaped helmets. They are facing away from the camera at crowd of civilians with animated expressions. Between them is a construction of wood and barbed wire.
Men and women strove to get past British troops and release hunger strikers from the Mountjoy Prison during the general strike of April 1920

The Dublin District Historical Record described the scene:

Rapidly constructed obstacles were soon trodden down by the leading ranks … being pressed from behind; even tanks were no obstacle. The troops thus found themselves in the unenviable position of either being overwhelmed or having to open fire on a somewhat passive, but advancing crowd of men and women.

Yet the pressure on the authorities and the possibility of their being caught up in a disastrous invasion of their prison was relieved by Sinn Féin members.

Seán O’Mahony was a Sinn Féin organiser, businessman and hotel owner. He was a member of the Dáil and Dublin Corporation. Seeing a number of priests at the demonstration, O’Mahony got them to form a cordon at the front of the crowd and then pushed everyone back from the entrance, while shouting, ‘in the name of the Irish Republic, go away!’ This effort had the merit of avoiding bloodshed, but it left the soldiers untested as well as serving to ensure a popular insurrection against British rule did not begin that day. O’Mahony was no Desmoulins and he took it on himself to sustain this role.

A side street near Mountjoy Prison (background) is filled with people looking away from the camera towards the bared windows of the prison. This was the situation on Monday 12 April 1920 when the biggest general strike in Irish history took place.
As news of the 1920 hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison spread, all the streets around were filled with men and women protestors

The following day, one week after the hunger strike began, Monday 12 April 1920, a crowd of twenty-thousand men and women gathered around the jail, which remained in danger of being stormed by these huge numbers of protesters. A thin line of troops with fixed bayonets, as well as an armoured car, a rock in a sea of protesters, and the political impact of Sinn Féin’s intervention were all that held back the crowd (see video). There was no hope of moving any traffic in the streets around the prison. Inside the Mountjoy, the authorities were totally cut off and could only reach their superiors by telephone.

The IRA and Cumann na mBan mobilise at Mountjoy Jail

A black and white picture taken during Ireland's biggest general strike, showing a British soldier standing to attention beside an early-looking armoured car, which seems to be a truck with a circular body adapted for defence. Two soldiers are emerging from the centre of the vehicle.
Armoured cars were rushed to Mountjoy Prison during the great general strike of April 1920

Frank Henderson, a commandant in the Dublin Brigade of the IRA recalled that the British soldiers were provocative and there was a real danger that the crowd would be fired upon. Henderson was put in charge of IRA activities outside the prison, with orders to not allow the IRA parties to be provoked by the British military and restrain the crowd from provoking the soldiers. The IRA had brought arms, however, revolvers in their pockets, and were ready to fire back should shooting begin. ‘The spirit of the orders was restraint unless fire was opened by the British.’

A large number of women fill a street near the Mountjoy Prison. One of them is holding a tricolour. Many of them have placards reading 'Mother of God Open the Prison Gates'. A small number of police look on from beside a wall on the far side of the crowd. Black and white, taken in April 1920 during Ireland's biggest general strike.
Cumann na mBan mobilised their members to carry placards and guard against the threat of violence by the British soldiers. Some of them were able to visit the hunger strikers and bring out valuable communications

A full mobilisation of Cumann na mBan took place and the women’s organisation was very active in parading with posters and providing ‘guard’ duty. On Tuesday 13 April, Marie Comerford obtained admission to visit Frank Gallagher and brought out news of the prisoner’s demands, information which was issued by Sinn Féin as a press release. But by Tuesday evening, the authorities had recovered their position by deploying an additional two tanks, a number of armoured cars, a great many more soldiers and rolls of barbed wire. They even had air support: the RAF flew close to the rooftops (in dangerous 50mph winds), to try to intimidate those filling the streets around the jail. These RAF missions were considered an innovation and a success, confirming to the authorities that, ‘aeroplanes could be used for clearing streets by dropping warning notices and, if necessary, using Lewis gunfire.’

The prison was safe.

Safe, but surrounded.

A sepia photograph of a large crowd in front of the gates of the Mountjoy Prison. All are facing away from the camera and most are men wearing cloth caps. Taken in April 1920 during Ireland's most radical general strike.
The streets around the Mountjoy Prison were completely blocked by crowds in April 1920

This was the context for Ireland’s biggest general strike.

The Irish labour movement resolved the crisis by taking decisive action. With the attention of the country focused on the prisoners in Mountjoy jail, the executive of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Council (ILPTUC) called for a national stoppage. Earlier, on Monday (12 April 1920), they had sent telegrams to the organisers of the ITGWU and placed a manifesto for a strike in the Evening Telegraph. The railworkers of the Great Southern and Midland Company began the general strike by halting all trains after 4.30pm on that day, all trains, that is, apart from those which were bringing the announcement of the general strike to the rest of the country.

Ireland’s greatest general strike begins 12 April 1920

The telegram sent all around the country that had a massive effect and launched Ireland’s greatest ever general strike from 12 April 1920 (Source: National Library of Ireland, William O’Brien collection)

Tuesday, 13 April 1920 saw a complete shutdown of all work in Ireland, along with massive local demonstrations and in some places, ‘soviet’ power. The reports that trade union officials sent back to their headquarters really convey in their own words just how effective was the strike and how wholehearted was the workers’ participation:

Galway:

Well, the Workers’ Council is formed in Galway, and it’s here to stay. God speed the day when such Councils shall be established all over Erin and the world, control the natural resources of the country, the means of production and distribution, run them as the worker knows how to run them, for the good and welfare of the whole community and not for the profits of a few bloated parasites. Up Galway!

Cavan Branch, ITGWU:

Wire received 6pm; meeting held,  strike agreed upon. Tues. – Cattle fair dispersed; shops closed; protest meeting held; resolution protests passed; red flags and mottoes ‘workers demand release of all Irish political prisoners’ prominently displayed… strike committee formed. Town Hall commandeered as headquarters …

Rathangan Branch, ITGWU

Our strike was carried through with great success. All work was at a standstill. The only work that was done was malthouse work. Myself and all our post staff was on strike. We picketed the town. Had all the shops closed for the two days. We allowed them to sell no drink, only groceries and provisions.

Castletownroche Branch, ITGWU

Acted on instructions issued on the Press, 13th inst. Wire received at 9.30, 13th inst. Flour mill men then out. Ordered them back to work – by great work I got them to go. The whole Branch acted like one man. Paraded 200 members through streets yesterday with the general public, under the Rebel Flag – and proud were they. A monster meeting followed. Branch pledged themselves no going back until their countrymen were released.

Tralee Branch, ITGWU

Your instructions re strike were carried out splendid. All organised labour responded. Meetings of protest were held. The Trades council was turned into a Workers Council who took full control of everything. We had our own police who kept order, saw that all business was suspended, issued permits for everything required. Pickets patrolled the streets. In fact the workers controlled all. Workers showed that they were highly organised and that they can carry out any orders at a moment’s notice.

Kilkenny Branch, ITGWU

I received President’s wire at 5.11 on Monday evening. I being the first to get intimation and as I could not get in touch with either the President or Secretary Workers Council I acted on my own and by the help of willing volunteers the strike was completely made public at 7 p.m., not a single man going to work on Tuesday or a single house of business opened either. It was really magnificent the response… I also wired the different branches in the county as far as I can learn the stoppage in those places also complete. As far as the public in this city state that the whole success of the stoppage is due to the prompt action of the members of this Union

Maryborough Branch, ITGWU

You may be interested to know that so far as Maryboro was concerned the strike was a great success. All our Branch members co-operated and we had a strike committee which regulated the closing of shops and opening of same for sale of food. We stopped motors and compelled them to get permits from strike committee. Also compelled stock owners to clear off the fair on Wednesday; ten minutes to get off the square. Our pickets allowed no drink to be sold, as far as we of the O.B.U. were concerned here we did our best.

Virginia Branch, ITGWU

We had a very enjoyable time in Virginia at the strike for the release of the Mountjoy prisoners. The Transport members all struck work, and all other labourers joined in with them. We got on to the business houses first. Got them all closed, with which we had not much trouble. We then held a meeting and put a picket on all roads leading to town and stopped all people pending special business. We celebrated the release of the prisoners with a parade through the town at 8 p.m., which over 100 took part, headed by the local Sinn Fein band.

Maynooth Branch, ITGWU

… It may be mentioned that, with one solitary exception, the procession was composed of workers only, which goes to show the sincerity of the mouthings of the bosses with Ireland a nation… The procession carrying the Tricolour and Red Flags made a most imposing display… Noteworthy by their absence on both days was the usual bodyguard of Irish Ireland and Workers Processions, the R.I.C. who by the way are now homeless in Maynooth.

Carrigallon Branch, ITGWU

You will be glad to hear our strike took place on Thursday last, the 15th inst. Our Branch, with Sinn Fein Club and Volunteers went out to a man. All trading and business was completely suspended for the whole day, the banks, post office, every shop in the town and all traffic was kept suspended. At 12 o’c. in dashing rain one hundred men marched to our red banner and the tricolour through the town and returning placed our colours on the high roof of the post office.

In Dublin, the Drapers’ Assistants’ Association was given information that several shops in Grafton street were attempting to remain open. They organised a sizeable flying picket, which went to the salubrious part of town, where they found that the information was incorrect. Everything was closed. All sailings from Dublin were halted. You could only obtain bread and milk from particular shops and vans which had agreed with the ILPTUC the basis on which they could deliver their goods, mainly for a limited period on the afternoon only. It helped alleviate concerns about hunger in the capital that boats returning with the day’s catch were obliged to just dump their haul on the North Wall and sell them off for what they could get.

The general strike of April 1920 leads to ‘soviets’ and workers’ councils across Ireland

In Waterford, reported the Manchester Guardian, ‘the City was taken over by a Soviet Commissar and three associates. The Sinn Féin mayor abdicated and the Soviet issued orders to the population which all had to obey. For two days, until a telegram arrived reporting the release of hunger strikers, the city was in the hands of these men.’ The same newspaper also gave a survey of the events of the day, ‘in most places the police abdicated and the maintenance of order was taken over by the local Workers’ Councils… In fact, it is no exaggeration to trace a flavour of proletarian dictatorship about some aspects of the strike.’

Freedom summed up the general strike with this observation: ‘never in history, I think, has there been such a complete general strike as is now for twenty-four hours taking place here in the Emerald Isle. Not a train or tram is running not a shop is open, not a public house nor a tobacconist; even the public lavatories are closed.’

From Kilmallock, East Limerick, came a report that vividly describes what workers’ control of a town looked like:

A visit to the local Town Hall – commandeered for the purpose of issuing permits – and one was struck by the absolute recognition of the soviet system – in deed if not in name. At one table sat a school teacher dispensing bread permits, at another a trade union official controlling the flour supply – at a third a railwayman controlling coal, at a fourth a creamery clerk distributing butter tickets… all working smoothly.

It was much more difficult for the strike to take hold in the north. The demand to release the prisoners was going to serve the nationalist cause and significantly weaken Britain’s ability to police the national movement if it won. Even so, in certain strategic industries like the railways, the strike was effective. Robert Kelly, for example, railworker organiser and member of Newry Brigade IRA successfully built the strike in that town.

It is clear that the lrish Labour Party and Trades Union Council (Labour and the trade union movement were united at the time) were hardly exaggerating when they summarised that:

Probably never has there been so sudden and dramatic a strike in the history of the Labour movement anywhere… Local Town Councils in many towns handed over the use the municipal buildings to the workers’ committees.

The Manchester Guardian also noted the significance of the workers’ council:

It is particularly interesting to note the rise of the Workers’ Councils in the country towns. The direction of affairs passed during the strike to these councils, which were formed not on a local but a class basis.

In the face of this incredible working class militancy and with the prospect of it deepening, the British authorities gave in. The first offer the governor made to the prisoners was that of a transfer to Wormwood Scrubs, which, they were told, would be accompanied by their being given political status. This, the prisoners refused. The second offer was to give the prisoners political status in Mountjoy Jail. This too, the prisoners refused. Peadar Clancy (second in command, Dublin Brigade) rejected it on behalf of the Volunteers. ‘I know the risk I’m taking but there are men here who must get out before they are recognised… the Castle isn’t done by a long chalk, but they’re done for the moment. The general strike has them beat.’

The British authorities are forced into a humiliating defeat by the power of the general strike

The most senior imperial figure in Ireland at the time was Field-Marshal Lord French. Seeking a resolution to the crisis, French sent for the constitutional nationalist and Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill. O’Neill was visting the Mountjoy Prison at the time and left for the Viceregal Lodge where he met the newly arrived Commander in Chief of the British forces in Ireland, General Nevil Macready. It seemed that Macready was the right man for the job the British had in mind. In 1910, Macready had used the threat of shooting workers to prevent a miners’ strike in Wales. As a result, he had earned the nickname, ‘strike breaker.’ At first French and Macready presented O’Neill with a hard line coming from London. On the Monday the British government had made it clear that the demand to release the prisoners, ‘cannot be entertained.’ Bonar Law told the House of Commons: ‘A decision has been taken by the Government and I do not believe that there is any chance of its being reviewed.’

A portrait of Lord John French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1920. An elderly man with thick, white, dropping moustache, he looks at the camera with a serious expression. Upper body and head pictured. He is wearing a military jacket and overcoat.
Lord John French was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the strike on behalf of the Mountjoy prisoners in 1920 and had to allow the men their freedom in a humiliating blow to British authority in Ireland.

‘Why don’t they eat,’ shouted an MP, to general merriment. The British establishment was complacent.

Forty-eight hours later, however, with the powerful general strike underway and many towns in Ireland under the control of workers’ councils, the authorities were wavering and when O’Neill proposed that the prisoners be released on parole for good behaviour, Macready and French accepted the idea.

The third offer to the prisoners, therefore, was put them with O’Neill’s return to the prison at 3pm on Wednesday 14 April: they could all leave the prison if they signed the parole form. Once again and despite suffering from the effects of their hunger strike (some of the men were never to fully recover), they said ‘no’.

In a panic, with no help from telephone calls to London, from where the cabinet told him that he must decide for himself, Lord French contacted the jail and said that the prisoners could be released. Pathetic attempts were made to hide the extent of this defeat when the prison officials read the parole document out to each prisoner as he left. No one gave any pledge to recognise it and scornful of their warders, the emaciated hunger strikers were greeted with an intense surge of delight from the crowds, who although now allowed to come right up to the steps of the prison were careful to give the men room and assistance in reaching ambulances waiting to take them to hospital.

This was one of the most disastrous defeats ever experienced by the British authorities in Ireland and they were well aware of it. The London Morning Post described the scene as one of ‘unparalleled ignominy and painful humiliation.’ Subsequently, the official history of the Dublin garrison of the British army reported that the effect of the strike was to drive from the streets military and police secret services, who could now be identified by many of the released prisoners.

The release of the hunger strikers and the cancellation of policy… nullified the effect of the efforts made by the Crown Forces during the three preceding months. The situation reverted to that obtaining in January, 1920, and was further aggravated by the raised morale of the rebels, brought about by their ‘victory’ and a corresponding loss of morale on the part of troops and police.

What can be learned from the great general strike of 1920?

It is often argued that Ireland could not have been (and never will be) a socialist country because of the adherence of the population to national parties and to Catholicism. Typically, the events of 1916 – 1923, Ireland’s revolutionary years, are framed by narratives that make this assumption. What this misunderstands is the nature of revolutions. No revolution has ever taken place in which the revolutionaries started with complete independence from the values and institutions that they end up overthrowing. Always, it is a process of differentiation and development, of realisation, often of delighted surprise to the revolutionaries themselves (the reports from local trade unionists above have this quality). And this process is always uneven. In Ireland’s biggest ever general strike there were towns in which workers continued to offer a leading role in affairs to the clergy and to prominent nationalists and other towns, like Watford and Galway, where the workers unhesitatingly took the lead and referred to the language of the Russian Revolution in doing so.

Unfortunately for the radical workers of 1920, their own organisations and leaders were far from eager to lead the movement towards a socialist Ireland. James Connolly was dead and Jim Larkin was in Sing Sing jail, leaving a generation of Labour and trade union leaders in charge whose values were closer to those of the modern Labour Party and ICTU than their socialist, former colleagues.

Rather than urge workers to draw revolutionary conclusions from the general strike, Ireland’s labour leaders hurried to discourage further general strikes and to keep the subsequent enthusiastic workers’ movement within boundaries acceptable to Sinn Féin. It was therefore left to conservative newspapers to draw the most important conclusion from the 1920 general strike.

The Daily News put the lesson like this:

Labour has become, quite definitely, the striking arm of the nation… It can justly claim that it alone possessed and was able to set in motion a machine powerful enough to save the lives of Irishmen when threatened by the British Government and that without this machine Dáil Éireann and all of Sinn Féin would have beaten their wings against the prison bars in vain.