In March 1920 Irish Republicans used a by-election in Stockport to highlight the plight of Republican prisoners on hunger-strike in a British prison.
In March 1920 William O’Brien, secretary of the Irish Labour Party and a leading member of the Irish trade union movement, was arrested and taken to Wormwood Scrubs where seventy other Republican political prisoners were already being held. When they began a hunger-strike he joined in. O’Brien had helped found the Irish Transport & General Workers union and had been close colleague of James Connolly.
O’Brien’s arrest coincided with growing dissatisfaction amongst many in the Irish community in Britain at the attitude of the British Labour Party to events in Ireland and, in particular, its refusal to wholeheartedly support self-determination for the Irish people. At a meeting in the Free Trade Hall on 1st March 1920, for instance, Sean MacEntee (TD – a member of the Irish Parliament – for South Monaghan) and A Connor (TD for South Kildare) attacked the Labour party’s views on Ireland. MacEntee said that it was useless to talk to them of Dominion status. They were not a colony, but a nation with a record as proud and cleaner than England’s and nothing less than complete independence would satisfy them.
Connor ridiculed the report of the Labour party delegation to Ireland, saying that it had concluded that the Irish were rather too naughty to be entrusted as yet with the conduct of their own affairs. At the end of the speeches the packed audience passed a resolution stating that “this meeting of Irish citizens of Manchester and district hereby pledges its allegiance to the Republic of Ireland established in Easter 1916 and confirmed by the vast majority of the people of Ireland in the election of 1918.”
A parliamentary by-election was due in Stockport, following the death of Spencer Leigh Hughes and resignation of George Wardle, the two Members of Parliament. Local Irish people sent a delegation to the Labour Party NEC protesting at its attitude on self-determination and alleged inaction on the arrest of William O’Brien. In particular they wanted to know whether the Labour party was prepared to grant immediate recognition of the right of the Irish people to self-determination, even if a majority decided for an Irish Republic, whether they would release all Irish political prisoners if returned to power, and finally, whether they would specify a time for the withdrawal of the army of occupation.
The Labour Party said that these were hypothetical questions and instead handed them a long statement justifying the party’s views and actions. This evidently did not satisfy the delegation, for on 16th March a meeting of over a thousand Stockport Irish electors invited William O’Brien to contest the Stockport seat “as a protest against the apostasy of the Labour party on the question of Irish self-determination and against the inactivity in the face of military tyranny in Ireland”. The United Irish League urged support for the Labour party but by now their views carried very little weight in the Irish community which had thrown its weight behind the Republican movement.
The defection of the Irish seems to have had an effect for in his manifesto Sir Leo Money, one of the two Labour candidates, wrote that he regarded with shame the fact that “at the conclusion of a war waged for human liberty Ireland is governed by a military despotism”.
No doubt hoping that the Irish electorate would in time return to the fold, the Labour Party also allowed the Irish campaign to use its meeting rooms at Central Hall for an opening election rally. J Clancy from the ISDL presided, stating that they refused absolutely to take the gloved hand offered by the English Labour Party any more than the mailed fist of the Coalition. The Labour Party had failed dismally on the question of self-determination for Ireland and their object in fighting the election was to make Labour realise that its attitude was not consistent with the democratic principles which they professed. Thus the decision of the Irish to support O’Brien was nicely timed to expose the gap between Labour’s past rhetoric and Labour’s present position and push the party into outright support for complete self-determination.
In his election address issued from jail William O’Brien (standing as Workers Republican) said that his aim “was to raise the clear issue of the right of the Irish people to determine their own destiny. The issue is whether the people of Ireland are to have their own free choice, without the interference of any power, people or parliament, in deciding the form of government under which they will live.” He went on to argue that the Labour Party had recanted from the position it had adopted in April 1919 at an international conference in Amsterdam when it had supported the immediate application of the right of self-determination to Ireland. Now it seemed to favour some form of Home Rule which would still leave foreign affairs and defence in the hands of the British Empire. “Labour, like the British government, has one definition of freedom and self -determination when applied abroad and another interpretation of it at home.”
During the campaign Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had been murdered by the British during the Easter Rising, came to speak in support of O’Brien, as did Captain MacNaghten, an Ulster Protestant who had fought in the war but afterwards joined the Republican movement. When the results were announced on 11th April O’Brien had received 2,336 votes, which the Manchester Guardian estimated was substantially the whole Irish vote in the constituency. The two seats were won by the Coalition candidates.
O’Brien continued his hunger strike until the government did a deal to move him into a nursing home (where he was visited by the veteran Fenian Dr Mark Ryan) and finally release him in early May. O’Brien was later elected to the Dail for many years and died in 1968.
Article by Michael Herbert