William Walker, Unionism’s James Connolly 

It’s hard to overstate the centrality of Pearse and Connolly to the modern Irish state and Irishness. Yeats wrote in his famous verse wrote:

‘Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn’

Eamonn McCann wrote:

“One learned quite literally at one’s mother’s knee, that Jesus had died for the human race and Patrick Pearse for the Irish section of it.”

Professor Michael Laffan wrote:

“When I was a schoolboy… reading Carter’s history of Ireland, more space was devoted to Pearse than to all the other leaders put together or to the Easter Rising. There was almost a state-imposed distortion whereby not only are the Irishmen who fought in the British army in the First World War airbrushed out, the constitutionalist tradition was seen as a dead end.”

The Irish republic has achieved the unchallenged deification and total ubiquity of republican icons Connolly and Pearse.

But this idolatry has been achieved at the expense of other Irishmen and another Irishness that is, in the true republican sense, broader and future-looking and less authoritarian.

I could talk about the great many constitutional Irishmen, from Parnell to Davitt to Redmond; William O’Brien who articulated a language of Orange-Green reconciliation that far preceded early Hume and late McGuinnness; Or Ireland’s great “social revolution” steered from the palace of Westminster.

But right now I’m thinking more of those who were Irish and British. Men like Edmund Burke and William Drennan, John Philpot Curran, Thomas Sinclair, and James Pirrie (please point me to any women you may know of*).

John Philpot Curran, defence advocate for many of the detained revolutionary United Irishmen, said in 1794 (as paraphrased by Frederick Douglass:

“I speak in the spirit of British law, which makes Liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from British soil; which proclaims Liberty even to the stranger and sojourner. The moment he sets his foot on British earth, the ground on which he treads is holy. No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced; no matter in what disastrous battle his Liberty may have been cloven down; no matter what obligation incompatible with freedom may have borne upon him; no matter with what solemnity he has been devoted on the alter of slavery; the moment he stands on British earth the alter and the God tumble to the dust; his spirit walks forth in its majesty, his body swells beyond the measure of his chains that burst from round him, and he stands redeemed, regenerated, disenthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation.”

Edmund Burke, who called the United Irishmen “that unwise body”, wrote in a November 17 1796 letter to John Keogh:

“I can not conceive that a man can be a genuine Englishman without being a true Irishman… I think the same sentiments ought to be reciprocal on the part of Ireland, and, if possible, with much stronger reason.”

He wrote elsewhere:

The closest connection between Great Britain and Ireland is essential to the well-being, I had almost said to the very being of the two kingdoms… By separation Ireland would be the most completely undone country in the world, the most wretched, the most distracted and the most desolate part of the inhabitable globe.”

I write this with the caveat that the great body of Irishmen quickly turned into unionists, a fact skimmed over republicans who unendingly invoke Tone and other United Irishmen.

As Edward Carson wrote to Woodrow Wilson in 1918:

“The Ulstermen of to-day, forming as they do the chief industrial community in Ireland, are as devoted adherents to the cause of democratic freedom as were their forefathers in the eighteenth century. But the experience of a century of social and economic progress under the legislative Union with Great Britain has convinced them that under no other system of government could more complete liberty be enjoyed by the Irish people.”

The slogan that many Irish revolutionaries were Protestant is as effective and lazy as someone saying that a good many Catholics are unionists.

But the purpose of this post is to consider specifically the Irish unionist trade unionist William Walker – a kind of unionist equivalent to James Connolly.



William Walker was a self educated shipyard worker from Belfast. He apprenticed as a joiner in Harland and Wolff.
Born in 1871 he founded and led the Independent Labour Party in Belfast, dying in 1918 after a long illness.
His brand of socialism and unionism was known as ‘Walkerism’. His life with trade unions began with the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. He later sat on the British Trades Council. Walker was also President of the Irish Trades Union Council and an executive member of the British Labour Party.
William Walker was a regular orator at of Belfast’s speaker’s corner on the steps of the Custom House.

A landscape drawn on site.

Walker is well known for his public dispute with James Connolly, who he called “the drawing-room warrior”.

Walker saw himself as a socialist, but he clashed with James Connolly on the question of Irish independence – William Walker opposed Home Rule for Ireland.

William Walker wrote in ‘A Socialist (Symposium and An Evasion‘ (1910) to explain his wider Irishness that went beyond nationalism:

“I am an Internationalist because the same grievances which afflict the German and the Englishman afflict me. I speak the same tongue as the Englishman: I study the same literature: I am oppressed by the same financial power: and, to me, only a combined and united attack, with out geographical consideration, can assure to Ireland an equal measure of social advancement as that which the larger and more advanced democracy of Great Britain are pressing for.”

He opposed Home Rule on the ground that workers would be better off within a liberal British state than a conservative, clerically dominated Irish one. As Irish History Society explained:

“By the 1890s, however, the memory of Grattan’s parliament had slipped beyond the horizon. If trade unions still clung to an obsessive ‘buy native’ mentality, they could see no purpose in their support for nationalism other than nationalism itself. Only the tiny coterie of socialists, and William Walker’s labourites in Belfast, gave any serious thought to what kind of regime might follow Home Rule. Connolly’s syndicalism shaped the socialist view of the state; and syndicalism itself was notoriously weak in its analysis of state power. The ‘Workers’ Republic’ ideal did little to clarify the options facing the contemporary labour movement. Walker opposed Home Rule on the ground that workers would be better off within a liberal British state than a conservative, clerically dominated Irish one. Mainstream labour had no economic policy in place for the proposed Home Rule administration, and could scarcely think of any specifically working class argument for self-government.”

The clash with Connolly affected Walker’s electoral chances, and ultimately he was never able to bring together Catholic and protestant voters in the numbers required to beat the incumbent parties. He failed to secure the North Belfast Westminster seat in 1905, facing similar defeats in 1907 and 1910.

During the 1905 election campaign Walker declared support for the retention of the British sovereigns accession declaration against transubstantiation and for the exclusion of Roman Catholics from high State positions. Walker said he would put the interests of Protestantism before those of the ILP:

“Protestantism means protesting against superstition, hence true Protestantism is synonymous with labour.”

Walker wrote in ‘Socialism and Internationalism: A Reply to Friend Connolly‘ (2011):

“Against clericalism I am (and I have said much more about the Protestant than the Catholic clergy); yet there is not a worker in either ranks who doesn’t know that my activities are not self-interested. But that my opinions are honestly if wrongly (?) held, and that not once in all my public career did personal religion in the least influence me.”

He also wrote in that essay:

“Into a pitfall of errors Comrade Connolly falls when he assumes that I was quoting “the Protestant rebels,” as approving of them. I wasn’t, but I was pointing out that Catholic Ireland had many Protestant leaders in all the great revolutionary movements, and this evidently was information to friend Connolly. But to get to essentials. What do you want an Irish Labour Party for? Will Ireland more readily respond to it than to the British Labour Party? What is your experience? Have you proved that? No; everything that the people of Ireland want can be safeguarded much better under the protection of the United Democracies than if we were isolated. This truth has been reaffirmed at the recent Irish Trade Union Congress, when once again a Congress of Irish representative workmen pledged themselves over to the British Labour Party, recognising therein the elements of protection; but Comrade Connolly, who three weeks ago found me without Nationalism, finds me today full charged with parochialism, and this he declares is why I am not an Internationalist like unto him. Just so. That is just the reason. Whilst frothy talk about “Nationalism forming the basis of Internationales” has been plentiful with some people, some of us in Belfast have been doing something to improve conditions – in the Poor Law Board, in the City Council, and the Trade Union branch. Amongst the textile workers, the sweated and oppressed, the dockers and the carters, we have gone to help to lift them to a better condition of life. Of course this is Parochialism. Well, Friend Connolly, I am proud of my ‘parochial’ reputation.”

Like many republicans today. James Connolly was almost unending in his contempt for Belfast and the unionists of the north. The north and the northern Protestants was an irredeemable morass, a target the Labour activist and Citizens Army leader regularly assailed.

As William Walker wrote, Connolly loved to “sneer at Belfast” and used his writing to “attack Belfast and all within its borders” – he was “obsessed with an antipathy to Belfast and the Black North.”

It reminds me of what Newton Emerson wrote of the modern left:

“The infantile contradiction of the modern left, ‘no hatred except for those we hate’.”

Connolly’s chief weapon, “vituperation” as Walker called it, certainly was a strange method for converting Irish monarchists to the cause of an independent Irish republic.

I can give a few examples of Connolly disparaging the north and its thran inhabitants.  Connolly wrote in 1911 in an essay, ‘Plea For Socialist Unity in Ireland’:

“It may be assumed that the 12th of July parade in Belfast this year will be exceptionally large, as every effort will be made, and no money spared, to make an imposing turnout in the hopes of, at the last moment, averting Home Rule, but the parade will be as the last flicker of the dying fire which blazes up before totally expiring. A spell of bad trade in Belfast might have enabled Orange orators to stir up rioting among idle mobs, but the rush of good trade we are at present enjoying destroys any chance of such senseless exhibitions. The Orangemen of today may hate the Pope, but he hates still more to lose time by rioting, when he might make money by working, and in this he shows the “good sense which pre-eminently distinguishes the city by the Lagan.” Home Rule, then, is almost a certainty of the future.”

Connolly wrote an essay in March 1914, ‘The War in Ulster,’ and described the faces on the streets:

“Strangely enough, Belfast itself seems bent upon its use lines of strict attention to the business of profitmaking, and when I look around for the “grim, determined faces”, so celebrated in the song and story of the Tory Press, I fail to see them, and see instead… in the faces of the people in the streets the same unimaginative smugness, tempered by the effects of a Calvinistic theology in some cases, and by drink in many more.”

Connolly wrote in another essay:

“For that matter a sense of humour is not one of the strong points in an Orangeman’s nature.

The dead walls of Belfast are decorated with a mixture of imprecations upon Fenians, and, the Pope, and invocations of the power and goodness of the Most High, interlarded with quotations from the New Testament. This produces some of the most incongruous results.”

Connolly was good at distasteful and politically incorrect attacks on his opponents.

Connolly wrote in early 1916 a three part series entitled, ‘Slackers‘. In Part I, published February 5 1916, Ireland’s venerated martyr called migrants to Ireland “hordes” and a “swarm of locusts, “boys of the bull-dog breed” and “Brit-Huns”.

These sound like rantings of an angry nativist. This is interesting in the age of the refugee, especially since Cameron was excoriated for using the word “swarms”.

Addressing Connolly’s attacks on Belfast and the north, William Walker wrote in ‘Rebel Ireland:
 And Its Protestant Leaders’ (1910):

“Bunkum, friend Connolly; you are obsessed with an antipathy to Belfast and the black North, and under your obsession you advocate reactionary doctrines alien to any brand of Socialism I have ever heard of.”

Walker also wrote:

“He utilises the first two paragraphs to attack Belfast and all within its borders, and draws a lurid picture of what the “Orange orators” would do, etc., “if trade were bad.” A picture that, however true of 20 years’ ago, is totally false as applied to the present day. For I affirm that it has now become impossible in Belfast to have a religious riot, and this is due to the good work done by that much despised body, the I.L.P.

Walker makes a critical observation about Belfast and advances made under the Union:

“I hold no brief for Belfast, but past bigotry aside, we have moved fast towards Municipal Socialism, leaving not merely the other cities of Ireland far behind, but giving the lead to many cities in England and Scotland. 

We collectively own and control our gas works, water works, harbour works, markets, tramways, electricity, museums, art galleries, etc., whilst we Municipally cater for bowlers, cricketers, footballers, lovers of band music (having organised a Police Band), and our works’ department do an enormous amount of ‘timed’ and ‘contract’ work within the Municipality. With the above in operation, we, in Belfast, have no need to be ashamed of being compared in Municipal management with any city in the kingdom. What does Comrade Connolly say?”

Walker also wrote in, ‘Rebel Ireland: And Its Protestant Leaders’ (1910):

“Bailie Jack (Scottish Ironmoulders) declared that “what was wanted was the unity of our forces all over.” Just so, but Ireland has to be, must be, treated differently. Why? Because of the Conservative temperament of certain Irish propagandists, and because of their insistence on viewing the class war as a national question instead of, as it is, a world-wide question.”

Walker wrote in ‘A Socialist (sic) Symposium and An Evasion‘ (1910):

“Belfast’s municipal activities seem to be gall and wormwood to our Comrade. They excite his ire. They induce him to throw aside the last vestige of comradeship, and to descend to the level of the corner-boy in his rage against all and sundry, who have dared to spend their time in doing the collar work which ALONE makes for success, instead of leading an invisible ammy nowhere, but content if the general be visible to the people of the plain.”

William Walker makes a strong and compelling stand against the vision presented by Connolly. His alternative is confident and just as legitimate. Unfortunately Walker, never mind his British-Irish ideals, is almost unknown.

However there is reason for unionists to consider Walker and Walkerism and his arguments for an Ireland in partnership with Britain as against the isolated Ireland conceived by Connolly.

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