Monday, 9 September 2013

Each for All and All for Each

It is one hundred years since William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramway Company and the Irish Independent newspaper sought to purge his companies of Jim Larkin’s ITGWU. Along with virtually all the employers in Dublin he called for workers to give up their unions. They refused and as Irish historian John Dorney says, “Some terms in history are undervalued by overuse, and one of them is ‘class war’, but there could be no other term for the bitter ensuing struggle”.
Workers on this side of the Irish Sea realised what was at stake and sought to help. The TUC agreed to support the Dublin workers, and with the Co-operative Wholesale Society (the CWS) to send food relief.
The CWS took just 48 hours, to load 30,000 food parcels, consisting of 10lbs of potatoes, 1 lb of tinned fish, 2 lbs of sugar, ¾ lbs of margarine, ¾ lbs of tea, and 2 lbs of jam, onto the first ship, the SS Hare.
When the ship arrived in Dublin on 27 September, the union lifted the strike and distributed the rations to 25,000 families.  “A tremendous cheer for co-operation echoed across the Liffey from the meeting on the Sunday afternoon.  For it was realised that it was not trade unionism alone, or co-operation alone; but for once a great common effort of the people.  And of a great common effort the story will be told and re-told, amongst trade unionists and co-operators, this year and for many a year,” reported the Wheatsheaf.
During the Lock Out almost two million loves, 700,000 ten pound bags of potatoes, and half a million packs of margarine, as well as jam, cheese and coal where shipped by the CWS to Dublin.
Co-operation held an important place in the ideology of both Larkin and James Connolly.  Emmet O’Connor suggests that these ideas were embedded in the syndicalist and co-operative movements of the Irish left at that time and part of an attempt to produce a ‘counter-culture’ to the values of British capitalist modernization.

The then assistant editor of the Daily Herald, W. P. Ryan, linked Larkinism with the idea of the Co-operative Commonwealth. He hoped that Larkinism, the co-operative movement of Horace Plunkett together with politico-cultural forces like Sinn Féin, marked a resurgence of the Gaelic primitive communism romanticized by James Connolly in Labour in Irish History.

There is no doubt that Larkin was attracted to the syndicalist idea of underpinning the socialist struggle with a working-class counter-culture based on collectivist values of sharing and solidarity.

Despite the failure of Larkin, and the ITGWU, the Co-operative Movement did not turn its back on Ireland holding the Co-op Congress in Dublin at Whitsuntide, 1914. Big Jim referred to this event when he was made President of the Irish TUC in City Hall on June 1st 1914.

“In this City at the present moment, the annual congress of the British Co-operative Movement is being held. It is attended by men and women from all parts of the earth. It would be news to many to know that we here in Ireland had been pioneers in co-operation long before the Rochdale Pioneers. There had been a communistic colony down at Usher’s Quay, but it was crushed out by jealous and restrictive laws. Like every good thing Ireland ever started, England made it its business to put a stop to it.

The working class of Ireland would be compelled to understand the worth of co-operation. Through its agency we could supply all that life needs by ourselves for ourselves. It needed no argument to favour it. Life itself was co-operation in its truest sense. Man himself was a social animal and lived by co-operation. We had a great opportunity this week to see the in the Co-operative exhibition in the Rotunda what could be done by co-operative methods.”

In a few weeks the world was plunged into World War, a disaster for the working class everywhere, and for the SS Hare which was sunk by a U-Boat in 1917. Retail consumer co-operation was stillborn in Ireland but the co-operative movement proved its worth to the British nation in that war, and was unjustly punished for it, leading to the formation of the Co-operative Party to defend co-operative interests. But that is another story.

The motto of Larkin’s ITGWU ‘Each for All, and All for Each.’ was also the motto of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.  


Thirty Years of Ethical Trading for Dublin Food Co-op.

 One of my favourite Irish writers is George Bernard Shaw. I have been known to travel long distances to a catch performances of his lesser known plays. He was a staunch vegetarian becoming a convert in his early twenties. He attributed his long life and good health to his vegetarianism. It was not only economical but also aesthetically more satisfying as vegetarianism was an extension of his humanitarianism.  “A man of my spiritual intensity,” he said, “does not eat corpses.” 

Today in Dublin is an Institution celebrating an important milestone that I am sure Shaw would have wholeheartedly approved. A place one can buy all the vegetarian wholefoods one needs for a healthy diet and most of the other things required for the good life.

That place is the Dublin Food Co-op which is celebrating its thirtieth year. It dates back to 1983 when there was a campaign in Ireland to stop the building of a Nuclear Power station in County Wexford. Coming out of that campaign a group of friends came together to save money by bulk buying vegetarian wholefoods and other sustainable products.

Within a short time they where trading weekly from a hired hall at St. Andrew's Resource Centre on Pearse Street  where they remained for more than twenty years.
The Dublin Food Co-operative Society was formally registered as an Industrial and Provident Society in 1991 interestingly the legislation on Co-operatives and Friendly societies predates independence going back as afar as 1893 so Irish and British Co-ops have a common ancestry.  
Long before the rise of farmers' markets in Ireland they pioneered organic and local produce. They soon outgrew Pearse Street and began to look for a new home eventually finding it at 12 Newmarket, near St Patrick’s Cathedral. The new base was formally opened by the Minister for the Environment John Gormley in October 2007 to coincide with Ireland's National Organic Week.
Being a co-op its democratic structure includes a co-ordinating body elected at the annual meeting; the new chair is Niall Haslam, a research scientist, who serves with Eileen Fitzsimons as secretary. There are also various working groups to oversee different aspects of its activities including the protection of its ethics and governance. Much of the work to open and develop the Newmarket site was the volunteer labour of members.

The vast majority of food they sell is organic but they also sell fairtrade and environmentally-friendly produce. Stallholders extend the range to include organic vegetables and fruits, organic cheeses, eggs and dairy, organic wine, baked goods, organic clothing, books and other non-food items. At the end of last year the Co-op had almost 900 members, who receive a 5% discount on purchases, which increases to 15% if they also volunteer on a rota system to help in the co-op.

They operate like a wholefood department store with other like minded small producers trading under the same roof. This strikes me as a very interesting piece of co-operative innovation.
They open Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and they organise and host many events. The 30th anniversary year has been marked by a series including, co-operative games for kids, a poetry reading, a commemorative walk and a dinner with special guest Pauline Green President of the International Co-operative Alliance.
Doubtless the food at the dinner was excellent the Thursday Café has a very high reputation in Dublin for the quality and variety of its vegetarian dishes.
The Co-op is a vibrant community that goes far beyond food. Surplus funds are used wholly to benefit members by reducing prices and improving services and facilities. 
Driving the Co-op today is General Manager and expatriate Newcastle United supporter (a burden thankfully we do not all have to carry) Norman Rides, a longstanding co-operative champion. Norman joined the Co-op last year and says he is, “looking forward to developing and strengthening the Co-op through increased turnover, membership and influence. Although agricultural co-ops and credit unions are well-established in Ireland, there are very few consumer co-ops so there is not the same social and cultural capital available. In many ways we are writing the manual as we go along.”
In his great play about the relationship between Britain and Ireland, John Bull’s Other Island, Shaw say’s that “An Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination.”
Thank goodness for those Irish, men and women who had the imagination to see the potential in co-operation and congratulations to thirty years of  the Dublin Food Co-op.