The union cult of Larkin is built on factually baseless myths
Published 19/02/2013 | 04:00
'WE are here today to commemorate James Larkin, the founder of our union and the modern labour movement," declared Jack O'Connor, president of SIPTU, recently. "If we are to be honestly true to the legacy of Jim Larkin, it behoves us to abandon our sectarian comfort zones."
Good. So let's revisit some of Larkin's "sectarian comfort zones". In December 1915, at the height of The Lockout, the founder of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union refused to attend a fund-raising rally in Grimsby, because the proposed chairman, Ernest Marklew, was a divorcee. The sell-out meeting had to be cancelled, with a huge financial loss to the Lockout workers.
Jack O'Connor compared the honesty of Larkin with our bankers. Really? Even before the Lockout, Larkin had been imprisoned for the embezzlement of union funds, but was released early, at the personal intervention of the Lord Lieutenant.
Larkin was certainly not the peaceful pioneer of collective-bargaining, as is now being so preposterously proclaimed, but a syndicalist who ruthlessly used the strike as a weapon to wreck private enterprise. Workers who refused to follow his boycott of blacklisted companies were savagely beaten, even at their homes, while 'The Irish Worker' published the names and addresses of uncompliant women.
In December 1913, Havelock Wilson of the Sailors and Firemen's Union spoke bitterly of the £60,000 raised by unions for "the victims of Larkin's stupidity and blindness". It was not his union's policy – quoting Larkin – "to destroy the employers of labour . . . and the capitalist system", but merely (and note this, please) "to bargain collectively". Larkin, Wilson added, had broken all his promises.
Failure duly followed, and Larkin departed for the US; thereafter, the ITGWU prospered. By 1923, it had 100,000 members, an annual income of £130,000 and assets worth £140,000. Larkin returned that year, and launched a violent putsch against the ITGWU, as he and his followers forcibly occupied Liberty Hall and the union offices in Parnell Square. The ITGWU leaders – Thomas Foran, William O'Brien, Thomas Kennedy: all colleagues of Larkin during The Lockout – sued him.
Their counsel told the court that Larkin had justified the occupation by false and malicious attacks on their characters, in order to oust them and to gain sole control of the union. The Master of the Rolls, presiding, declared: "It is surprising that a man of Mr Larkin's intelligence should launch so desperate an invective against these people for irregularities, in the misapplication of funds and the falsification of documents, when I have before me a document which bears the name of James Larkin, which has been proved to be a mis-statement."
And Larkin's "mis-statement" asserted that the Transport Union had £1,746.69 in the Hibernian Bank in December 1913, whereas the union account was completely empty. Moreover, since all relevant union account books had mysteriously been destroyed, no explanation for the missing money was possible. The court duly found against Larkin, ordering him to pay the costs of both sides.
He then went to Moscow, and on his return announced that he had (pre-radio, mind you) addressed some 20 million Russians, having been elected as one of "the 25 men to govern the world". He boasted that he had been appointed a Chief of Battalion of the Red Army, whose 2.5 million men had "pledged to come to the assistance of Irish workers".
Next, he launched a vicious attack on the Labour leader, the kindly Tom Johnston, who, like Larkin, was Liverpool-born. But whereas Johnston had spent most of his life here, Larkin had been as long in the US as he had in Ireland. "It's time that Labour dealt with this English traitor," Larkin trumpeted. "If they don't get rid of this scoundrel, they'll get the bullet and the bayonet in reward. There's nothing for it, but a dose of the lead which Johnson promises to those who look for work."
This incitement to murder Johnston in a still-violent post-Civil War country cost Larkin £1,000 in libel damages. He could probably afford it: our mysteriously wealthy socialist paragon was now living in what is still the purlieu of the well-gotten, Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh.
Ah, but surely the poor loved Larkin? Not so: when he contested the North Dublin by-election in April 1928, he finished last, with only 8,232 of the 94,000-strong electorate voting for him (8.8pc). The government candidate, Vincent Rice KC, got nearly three times Larkin's vote.
Almost every union leader today reverently intones the name of Larkin in their cause. Only a weakness for passionately held, factually baseless myths could have created such a cult around this fraudulent, self-serving, egomaniacal braggart. And that silly, silly cliche on his statue outside the GPO only has any meaning in a restaurant for bipolar Bedouin: lettuce or eyes.