Anti-conscription strike saved thousands of lives

Issued 23 April 2018

On the centenary of the anti-conscription strike of 1918, Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin TD has highlighted the historic significance of the events that occurred a century ago today that led to thousands of lives being saved, and showed the power of organised labour to effect change.

Deputy Howlin said:

"During World War 1, compulsory military service was introduced in Britain in 1916, but Ireland was excluded at the time. However, in early 1918 the government of Lloyd George, seeking to address a shortage of troops had said that it was no longer possible to justify the exclusion of Ireland, as the German Spring Offensive led to a string of set backs for the allies on the Western front.

"In response to those proposals, the Irish Trades Union Congress, led then by William X O'Brien, called a general strike for one day on 23rd April 1918 that brought the country to a standstill. It was, and remains the largest strike in Irish history. Uniquely, it was endorsed by both the Catholic Church and employers.

"William X O'Brien of the Labour Party and ITGWU was pivotal in the plans for the general strike, leading tens of thousands of his members on to the picket line. It led to the shut down of factories, mills, railways, shipyards, docks, shops and cinemas across Ireland. In the weeks afterwards, the general strike was followed by rallies against conscription across the island. Others including Tom Johnson and MJ Egan played leading roles in preparing for the strike.

"In response to this, the provisions of the Military Service (No. 2) Act while passed by Westminster, were never implemented by the British Government.

"The strike, together with the attempt by Lloyd George to link conscription to a new Home Rule bill, united all strands of nationalist and labour opinion in hardening opposition to British rule.

"Reflecting today on events a century ago, we continue to see the devastation of war wrought in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and the importance that Ireland remains a neutral actor, dedicated to securing peace."