Irish Notes

At the annual meeting of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, held on the 1st March, 1917, the retiring president, Mr. J. H. Stirling, J.P., delivered a speech in which may be discerned the whine of the British capitalist at the late (and probably future) competition of Germany and Austria.

He set out with the statement that (referring to German industrial competition).

“It needed apparently this Armageddon to drive home to those concerned in British industry and commerce the fact that all was not well with our commercial system. … I would like to refer to two causes which have assisted to make German industrial competition so formidable ; they were the German banking system, or rather, methods, and their system of industrial combinations.”

The above rings true—true to the real capitalist soul without beating about the bush. The whole speech is in the same strain, which shows that in spite of pinching Germany’s State Insurance schemes and other modern capitalist methods, the British capitalist still found himself outstripped by his Continental competitor in the scramble for markets, and hence the attempt to smash up Germany in the present war.

Here is a further quotation (as summarised by the newspaper) showing the fright our local masters are in that German capitalists may still beat them at their own game :

He had heard a very able and eloquent address from that “Grand Old Man” of the British banking world, Sir Edward Holden, the Chairman of the London City and Midland Bank. Afterwards he invited Sir Edward to give him some assurance that it would be less easy for the great German banks and financial houses to borrow in London, on discount or otherwise, after the war than before it, and he regretted to say that Sir Edward was unable to give any assurance whatsoever to that effect. It might be argued that capital must find employment, that it could not be allowed to lie idle in bank safes, but that argument might have more weight if all the avenues of profitable and reasonably safe employment at home had been exhausted before considering the necessity of lending to our industrial enemies.”

Further on the speaker groans :

“The other great feature and strength of the German industrial system—its combinations, syndicates, Cartels, vereins, or by whatever name they might be called—was too vast to be dealt with there in detail, but the greatest of them—the metal octopus—as it had been well described, was fairly familiar to them all. In Australia, where it had fastened its tentacles deeply, they had been lopped off by government action, which had decreed that no firm except those having all their directors of British birth, or at least four-fifths of their shares in British-born hands, could in future engage in the mineral trade in Australia. Would that our home Government showed the same willingness to lay the axe to the root of the German commercial upas tree. In the grim industrial struggle which was sure to take place after the war, the trade that was unorganised, the members of which were trusting to their own individual ability and commercial bravery (sic), would have a poor chance of being able to hold its sector of the Imperial industrial line.”

Now comes the individual smack in the eye that affected the particular class interests of those the speaker represented :

“The half-dozen firms in Belfast who used to compete for the orders of the German shirt and collar makers had a most interesting illustration, just a few days before the outbreak of war, of the operation of the German system. They received individually an identical letter from the Berlin Union of Men’s Shirt and Collar Manufacturers inviting them to choose between selling only to members of that union, or in the event of their refusing to bind themselves, of getting no more orders from the members of that union.”

Oh naughty naughty Berlin union, how could you be so unkind as to utter such a threat to the sweaters of Belfast work girls !

The speaker gives us some light on the commercial morality of our honest masters in the following remarks :

“Apart from financial indebtedness on the London money market, the balance of ordinary trade with Germany and Austria was decidedly against us. In 1913 we bought from them £77,000,000 worth of goods, and sold to them £52,000,000. Assuming this ratio to have been maintained till the outbreak of war, and the terms of credit being on the average about equal, it follows that at present we owe our enemies about £3 for every £2 they owe us. The advantage to us of this position in a pooling of claims and a contra-account settlement is obvious.”

The above quotations are taken from the “Belfast Evening Telegraph” (1st March, 1917). The leading article in the same paper gives us some more enlightened balderdash. Referring to National Service, it says :

“The way is now clear for a thoroughly national response to the appeal of Mr. Chamberlain. Whatever the misgivings which may have haunted the minds of those who imagined the step to be only a prelude to industrial compulsion, these fears have been set at rest. Not that the possibility of such compulsion has been absolutely ruled out. That is in the hands of the people. If they of their own free will make adequate answer to the appeal the necessity for compulsion cannot arise. If they do not make answer the choice will then be between overwhelming disaster and compulsion. Nobody loves compulsion for itself, far from it; but as the sole alternative to national catastrophe the case for it would be irresistible. . . . The alternatives are voluntary and hearty obedience, or compulsion.”

Now we trust everybody clearly understands the position. There will be no compulsion; you need not join unless you like, but if you don’t join you’ll have to. We are reminded of the Anarchist’s reply in “No. 5 John Street” when he defined Anarchy as a state of society in which “everyone could do as he likes but who don’t shall be made”.

Lord Haldane also apparently agrees with the sentiments expressed by the Chairman of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce as witness the following quotation from “Belfast Northern Whig” (3.3.17):

“Lord Haldane, speaking at Stockton-on-Tees last week on Education, said our prosperity had made us a little slothful. Therefore not merely Germany, but the United States, Switzerland, and other countries were throwing their energies into the task of disputing our supremacy. There world be a struggle in the industrial world after the war, and we must adapt ourselves to the new conditions.”

At the present moment when so much is being talked of in regard to America perhaps it would not be out of place to quote some remarks on American affairs by A. Maurice Low from the ”National Review” (August, 1911) :

“Americans who think imperially recognise that so long as the British Empire remains intact the dream of American primacy will not be realised, and only when the Empire is disintegrated will Great Britain be forced to surrender first place. This does not mean that the American would deliberately do anything to bring about the downfall of Great Britain, but all history has taught that nations, like individuals, rise and decline and die, that all nature lives to decay, and decays to live again; and if it be inevitable that nations must at last yield their greatness, and that the span of national existence, like that of mortal, is limited, then the same destiny that has ordained that Great Britain shall fall has selected the United States to rise. The American will not assist destiny, (?) but he will make no attempt to resist it.”

How does all this square with the oft repeated phrase, “The War that will end War” that enticed our brothers to the bloody shambles across the water ? The whole of the quotations made bear out our contention (made on every possible occasion) that wars are necessary under capitalism on account of the competition of different sections of the capitalists to see who can obtain the largest share of the swag stolen from the international working class. When “our industrial enemies” (vide Mr. Wilson), cannot be undersold or outflanked on the industrial field then they must be thrust out of the market through operations on the battle fields.

As industrial operations have become vast and the coalitions of capitalists international, so the military operations have also of necessity become mighty, involving nearly half the Globe in the turmoil. In the present struggle the toll of killed and crippled goes up week by week until it has now reached an appalling total. Every nation involved can show its quota of working men injured for life and its lists of killed, in a struggle that does not concern them. Every working-class home shows the ravages of war, whether in the form of absent or crippled brothers and sons or the scarcity of the necessities of life. Now to cheer us up we learn from: Mr. Churchill (“Northern Whig” (6.3.17) :

“They (the Government) must use the manhood of the whole world. Men of every race and every clime must serve behind the lines, and where possible in the lines according to their quality. They must use machinery at its highest form and must look for new fields and new methods of manoeuvre. They could make a certainty of 1918 if they took the necessary measures without delay.”

Cheering, isn’t it ? More rivers of working-class blood are required before the capitalist vampires will be satisfied. “Another year shall roll.”

In conclusion, to come a little nearer home, in spite of “our” commercial greatness, the slums of Irish towns (including especially loyal Ulster) for extent, rottenness, and depth of degradation, could hold their own against the slums of any other towns in the British Isles. The writers, being working men, are fairly well acquainted with slums and are certainly more interested in the destruction of these than in Louvain or the other celebrated Continental beauty spots. You see the slums are around us —we have to live in them, whilst the other places we are little likely to see this side of the grave unless a miracle happens.

Come, fellow-workers, enlist in the great International army of the proletariat which has as its objective the abolition of private property—the root of all wars.


(Socialist Standard, April 1917)