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A Letter from Ireland

(January 1943)


From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.3, March 1943, pp.90-91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following is from a letter from Dublin, dated January 1943:

There is an interesting article about the cost of living, based on the latest issues of the official Statistical Abstract, in the Irish Times of December 29th. I would send you a copy but one is not allowed to send newspapers through the post now. So I shall simply quote the chief parts of the article, to which I am sure there will be no objection.

By the official index figure, the goods which could have been bought for £100 in 1914, cost £176 in ’38, £237 in ’41, and £273 in ’42 (November of each year).

To complete the picture of the depreciation of purchasing power, it is important to know that while many of the principal items which constitute the official cost of living figures have been the subjects of controlled prices (kept down by means of subsidies which are met by taxes paid by the consumers), a wide variety of commodities not taken into account in computing the cost of living figures have risen to double or treble their pre-war prices. While many of such items may fairly be regarded as luxuries, others – such as certain types of household equipment and food – come within the category of domestic necessities. When all such allowances have teen made it can be assumed that today’s average purchasing power of the 1938 pound note is somewhere between ten and twelve shillings in the twenty-six counties. [1]

“Confirmation of that estimate of depreciated money values is given by the fact that issues of legal tender notes by the Currency Commission have more than doubled since 1939, while external trade has diminished, and there has been no Increase in the volume of trade in the twenty-six counties. A further index to the increased cost of commodities is that the average price of imported goods had more than doubled between December ’38 and December ’41 – since when the upward trend of prices has continued to operate. During the three years during which the import prices rose by more than 100%, the prices of twenty-six county exports only increased by slightly over 80%.”

A Perspective of Poverty

I have not seen a similar analysis of the price rises in England and don’t know if they are comparable, but I do know that wages have risen in England, while here they are stabilised at a low level. It is even illegal for an employer to give a raise when he wishes to do so without permission from the government. And such permission is often refused. Many of our workers are living on pre-war wages. If we take the wage levels into account alongside of the price levels, we should find that the picture in Ireland is far worse than that in actually belligerent countries.

No one is optimistic enough to suggest that under post-war conditions this state of things will alter appreciably for the better. In fact the official government policy is a warning that we must expect things to be just as bad after the war. In my opinion when the post-war world situation develops, so that the workers at present in England have to return, while Irish agriculture is faced with normal importations from America, and with the competition of mechanised English agriculture (itself in competition with America), then the whole situation will be aggravated.

Another point which throws light on the economic relations between Eire and the outer world is the reaction here to the Beveridge Plan. It is assumed that something of the sort will be adopted in England and the North. In the General Election atmosphere all parties would like to promise similar reforms to the country to gain support and this holds good whether the election is really about to come off as required by the Constitution, or whether some way will be found of forming a government without resorting to it. Election promises are being made. But no parliamentary party dares to suggest that anything resembling the Beveridge Plan will be operated here.

Eire and Imperialism

To show the reason why, I refer again to the Irish Times. On December 31, quoting from the Economist, it says

“The scale of benefits and family allowances may be much higher north of the border than in the south. The possibility of attractions of this sort will lead to emigration on an even greater scale unless restrictive measures are taken, either in Eire or in the United Kingdom ... The solution of the acute problem of partition will not be rendered any easier toy the emergence of different standards of social and welfare services north and south of the border.”

The Irish Times goes on to say that the Beveridge Plan assumes a steadily increasing national income in England, while in this country in the years before the war the national income “obstinately failed to expand” and there is no reason to think that it will expand much during the post-war period. I should think that is an understatement. However, the main point is clear, and is an interesting illustration of our relation to economic imperialism.

Obviously there is no solution under capitalism and the position of a reformist labour movement is therefore obviously hopeless.

The Labour election promise is £3 a week to every farm hand, as in England. The reaction among the farm hands is that it’s only right, a man can’t live decently on less, and this business of keeping the farm hands alive on the charity of the farmers by supplying free vegetables, etc., should be done away with ... but of course, they add, it can’t be done. They know it can’t be done, because they know that the small farmers, who themselves make less than £3 a week, could not employ any labour at that rate, while the large farmers would not do so, would let the farms go to rack and ruin instead, except as grazing land, unless they could get prices twice or nearly twice what they are now. And such prices could not be paid. However, the Labour Party is afraid to suggest a radical reorganization of the country.

The Labour Party Program

Its program includes the following points: nationalisation of the whole transport system under workers’ control, nationalisation of basic industries and control of secondary ones, collective farming, etc. Certainly we have in this an approach to a solution of the problems of the country, especially as the program states specifically that it is only intended as a first draft and that it must be clarified. It can be clarified in a socialist sense. But this program is never referred to by the Labour leadership and is not used as the basis for the election campaign. The majority of party members even know nothing about the program.

It seems to me and others that the basis for a socialist education of the party is to be found by pushing forward that program, explaining its full implications, demanding that the party program should be the basis of the election campaign, that leaders and perspective candidates should publicly pledge themselves at least to their own program, and to attack the leadership for abandoning its program. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude within the party constitution and will have the effect of rallying the whole left wing on the basis of a discussion of political principles.

Danger of a Split

At the present moment the party is facing a serious situation owing to the rivalry between the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, headed by Bill O’Brien, and the Workers Union of Ireland, headed by Jim Larkin. The ITGWU is by far the most powerful union in the country and the most reactionary. Its recent record has been that it withdrew from the Trades Council of Dublin, in which all Dublin unions are combined, in order to sabotage the fight against the Trade Union Bill. It gave no assistance during the Municipal Election campaign which, in spite of this defection, resulted in a great gain for labour. The candidates returned as councillors included Larkin himself, while one of his union organisers headed the poll in his area.

When it came to the selection of Dail (Parliament) candidates for Dublin, the ITGWU, in control of the conference, filled the panel with personal followers of Bill O’Brien, and rejected outright all Larkinite candidates and all left wing candidates who would be acceptable to the Labour Party branches, with one exception.

Larkin has so far said nothing. But it is certain, or almost certain, that he at least, and probably one or two of his men, could get a seat in the Dail without assistance from the party.

The general feeling is therefore that we face the danger of an immediate split, and the daily press hostile to labour is making the most of this. The worst of the situation is that we are facing a split upon an unprincipled issue, and the more or less progressive Dublin section of the party has been maneuvered into taking the side of Larkin, for whom it has no particular brief.

Meanwhile the point which is being obscured and which one must try to make plain is that the real issue lies not between O’Brien and Larkin, but between party democracy and the leadership.



1. There are twenty shillings in a pound note. The 26 counties are Free Ireland. The rest is Northern Ireland, under British rule. – Ed.

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