By Malcolm Burns in Scotland:
Celebrating a shared working-class history
Thursday 07 March 2013
The Scots and the Irish are as intertwined as a design from the ancient Book of Kells. And the labour movement across the Irish sea is woven from that same seamless garment.
Which is why I’m looking forward this weekend to two special events in the Glasgow St Patrick’s Festival 2013 – an extravaganza filling 10 city venues over 13 days with music, dance, song, discussion and family friendly events which kicked off on Tuesday and runs to St Patrick’s Day itself on the March 17.
Tomorrow night there’s a celebration of Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the Dublin lockout at the beautiful St Andrew’s in the Square venue, featuring speech and song from historian Francy Devine and a concert by Scottish and Irish performers including the ubiquitous Arthur Johnstone.
And on Saturday morning at Glasgow Caledonian University leading labour movement figures from both sides of the Irish Sea will pick up the themes of the lockout when they get to grips with the subject of trade unions, citizenship and independence – all vitally relevant as we head towards our Scottish referendum in 2014.
Public services union Unison Scottish secretary Mike Kirby will be there emphasising how trade unions celebrate diversity in the community and why this is so vital.
“The lecture and music celebrating the centenary of the Dublin lockout provides an opportunity to reflect upon the lessons of history in responding to the complex questions of how trade unions take effective action in support of members and communities facing the austerity measures of governments today,” he tells me.
The Dublin lockout was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers which took place in Ireland’s capital city from August 26 1913 to January 18 1914. It is often viewed as the most severe and significant industrial battle in Irish history.
Irish labour movement historian Francy Devine argues that the lockout was in fact a major milestone for the British labour movement as well as the Irish.
Central to the dispute was the workers’ right to unionise. The dire living conditions of the Dublin poor were a spark which ignited the months-long dispute.
Both Unison and general union Unite have been heavily involved in organising this weekend’s events.
Unite’s regional political officer for Scotland Jackson Cullinane says the lockout holds important lessons for trade unionists today.
“While the levels of poverty are not as acute as they were in Dublin in 1913 we are facing growing unemployment, reductions in welfare, cuts to public services and further attacks on trade union rights as the austerity agenda takes its toll across Europe,” he says.
“In such a situation, the courage of the Dublin workers who in the face of great hardship and ruthless opposition maintained months of struggle based on the principles of class action and solidarity should be an inspiration to us all.”
Saturday’s debate on unions, citizenship and independence will also be a key forum for raising the quality of the independence debate.
“In common with much of the trade union movement, Unite and Unison have not as yet taken a stance on the upcoming Scottish referendum,” Cullinane says.
“Instead we have challenged all parties to the debate to explain how their preferred option will match trade union priorities for a fairer Scotland.
“We are concerned with in whose interest power is used rather than where power lies.”
I’ll be at the two events because whenever I have a drink in a Glasgow pub or talk to an Irish voice on the phone – and I did both of these things today – I am asked “which part of Ireland do you come from?”
Of course I come from Scotland, but I know as a Gael I sound very like an Irish person from out west.
And that’s not an accident.
Irish and Gaelic are substantially the same language, with common grammar and words and ways of expressing love and anger and humour.
As well as culture, the Irish and Scottish peoples share a lot of history, geography, and religion – and even weather.
And as Pat Kelly’s recent history Radical Exports showed we share a lot of trade union politics too – famously exemplified by James Connolly, an Edinburgh-born socialist, a leader of the lockout and one of the founders of modern Ireland.
Tomorrow and on Saturday in Glasgow we can get together and celebrate that shared class history.
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