Saturday, November 27, 2010

Daniel O'Connell versus the protest

Earlier today a major protest march organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions passed through Dublin city to voice opposition to budget cuts. There is a lot of anger here now at years of apparent mismanagement of the economy by the government.

One odd observation concerns the direction of this march, which passes over O'Connell Bridge, past the statue of Daniel O'Connell and ends on O'Connell Street. Daniel O'Connell was one of the great historical nationalist heroes of Ireland...

...And no fan of trade unions, according to the early 20th century socialist leader James Connolly:

But as O’Connell grew in strength in the country, and attracted to himself more and more of the capitalist and professional classes in Ireland, and as he became more necessary to the schemes of the Whig politicians in England, and thought these latter more necessary to his success, he ceased to play for the favour of organised labour, and gradually developed into the most bitter and unscrupulous enemy of trade unionism Ireland has yet produced, signalising the trades of Dublin always out for his most venomous attack.

O'Connell's politics were informed by the liberal European idea of laissez-faire capitalism, and he condemned trade unions:

“There was no tyranny equal to that which was exercised by the trade-unionists in Dublin over their fellow labourers. One rule of the workmen prescribed a minimum rate of wages so that the best workman received no more than the worst. Another part of their system was directed towards depriving the masters of all freedom in their power of selecting workmen, the names of the workmen being inscribed in a book, and the employer compelled to take the first on the list.”

He recognised that by increasing tailors' wages in Dublin unions gave low-paid tailors in Glasgow a competitive advantage. O'Connell even opposed an 1833 law forbidding the employment of children under the age of nine in factories (except silk mills):

“Let them not”, he said, “be guilty of the childish folly of regulating the labour of adults, and go about parading before the world their ridiculous humanity, which would end by converting their manufacturers into beggars.”

So while 21st century protestors were marching past the O'Connell statue, they were passing a man who would have scorned their welfare state, their minimum wage and their trade unions. He probably would have scorned the state bailouts of big businesses too, of course. What Daniel O'Connell wanted was good old-fashioned capitalism, free from the intervention of governments or unions.

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