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Why century-dead trade unionist James Connolly is the political voice of the summer

He’s Mick Lynch’s hero, and his imprint can still be felt in Britain today.

Recent industrial action by members of the RMT union has created something of a buzz around its general secretary Mick Lynch, and has thrust him and his assistant Eddie Dempsey into the media spotlight.

Lynch and Dempsey have stood out as straight-talking speakers with none of the equivocation or oily double-speak so evident from Boris Johnson and his government. This has resulted in Lynch in particular gaining a public profile, and journalists seemed taken aback by his articulacy and candour, if appearing a little frustrated by his ability to bat away the questions they bowled at him with such aplomb. 

When asked on ITV’s Peston show who his political hero was, Lynch said: “James Connolly”, to which journalist Anushka Asthana replied quizzically: “James Connolly? Explain?”  

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Is it unfair to expect a high-profile British journalist to know who James Connolly was, or to be aware of his influential role in the trade union and Labour movement in the early 20th century? If it is, then it perhaps says something about the parlous position of trade unionism in the public consciousness of 21st-century Britain. It is fair to say that for most people in Britain – certainly in England – name recognition for one of the most important trade unionists of the 20th century is remarkably modest, so it’s worth re-stating Connolly’s influential role in the development of the modern trade union movement in the UK.  

Connolly’s parents travelled from Ireland to Scotland in the mid-19th century and lived in the Irish immigrant slum quarter of Edinburgh, his father a manure carrier for the council, his mother a domestic servant. Connolly had a series of labouring jobs in Edinburgh, but quickly made links with people in the Scottish labour movement, including Scottish miner’s leader Keir Hardie, who formed the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Connolly became secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, and was an influential voice in the new labour movement at the end of the 19th century before he moved to Dublin in 1896.  

While Connolly was a committed Irish republican his vision was internationalist, grounded in a belief that revolution must deliver economic as well as political justice as there was no point in just replacing English exploitation with its Irish equivalent. 

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Mick Lynch
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch describes Connolly as his political hero Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock

When he moved to Dublin, Connolly set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party with a radical manifesto calling for free children’s education and healthcare, nationalisation of public utilities and an expansion of public ownership. Connolly published his ideas in Keir Hardie’s Labour Leader newspaper, and while his revolutionary goals were too spicy for British labour tastes, the economic and social policies proved more attractive.  

Connolly was a theorist committed to putting socialist ideals into practice. His writing had a significant influence on Hardie’s thinking and the Labour Party founder gave Connolly a £50 loan in 1898 to set up a weekly newspaper in Dublin called The Workers’ Republic.  

The imprint of Connolly can still be seen in Britain today, not just through Mick Lynch and the RMT but in the thinking of those in the Labour movement who are still happy to call themselves socialists. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell delivered the James Connolly Lecture at the 2019 Féile an Phobail festival in Belfast and spoke about how Connolly’s writing inspired him and others in the 1960s to believe they could put their ideas into practice and change the world for the better. In that sense Connolly’s fingerprints can be seen on the 2017 Labour General Election manifesto which, in MacDonnell’s view, inspired people and gave them hope in the same way Connolly had done over a century before.  

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However, over 100 years after Connolly was executed by a British army firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol in 1916, the terms and conditions of public sector workers continue to be eroded, while private sector businesses protect their profit margins. Mick Lynch and the RMT have made the point over the last several months that railway workers and others in the public sector should not be asked to soak up the cost-of-living crisis, rampant inflation and stagnating pay, while businesses continue creaming profits off the back of their labour. One of Lynch’s soundbites during media interviews about the rail strikes was: “We refuse to be poor any longer.”  

If he was alive today, James Connolly would wholeheartedly agree. 

Feargal Cochrane is Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Kent  @fecochrane1 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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