William Walker was born in 1870 as the son of a boilermaker. He was apprenticed as a joiner and worked for a time at Harland and Wolf. In the 1890s he became an ardent supporter of the new Trade Unionism that was not just concerned with protecting the interests of craft workers but also the interests of the thousands of ‘unskilled’ workers in the Irish economy — and that included the women who toiled in the mills.
In the decade and a half leading up to the First World War, Walker became a senior figure in Belfast Trades Council, served as president of the Irish Trades Union Council and was an eloquent speaker on workers’ rights on the steps of the Belfast Customs House. He became a Labour Party councilor in North Belfast and almost gained a seat for this district when standing in Westminster elections. In 1912 he retired from this kind of activism, working as Nation Health Insurance inspector until his untimely death in 1918.
Walker is significant for a Unionism that finds itself shorn today of Social Democratic and Socialist ideology. It is all to easy to blame left wing politicians in England who have sided with Republicanism or to cite the difficulties that can face Unionists in sharing a May Day march with people who hold militant Nationalist views.
It is the case in my opinion that Unionism has walked away from the heritage of men like Walker who in his day took on James Connolly, claiming that his own Protestant heritage and British identity led him onto the path of socialism. He argued forcefully in a series of public letters between himself and Connolly that the latter man was trying to usurp the mantle of working class leadership and striving to align the cause of Labour with Irish separatism rather than with British Labour where it best belonged.
‘Everything that the people of Ireland want can be safeguarded much better under the protection of the United Democracies than if it were isolated’ he argued. He went on to assert that it had been his lifelong effort to ‘lift the veil of poverty and shame a little more from the face of the people’. In place of mouthing purist Marxist ideology Connolly should remember that ‘the capitalist system will not fall like the walls of Jericho at the shouting of the people but will only succumb to the assault and counter-mine of an active army of assailants’,
In his final letter to Connolly, whom in some respects he admired, Walker said, ‘I speak the same tongue as an Englishman, I study the same literature, I am oppressed by the same financial power. Only a combined United attack can bring to Ireland an equal measure of social advancement.’
Later of course Connolly would throw in his lot with Padraig Pearse in 1916 and arguably the socialism that the Revolutionary Marxist brought to the Nationalist project was completely swallowed up in a counter revolution that created a clericalist, inward looking right wing regime.
Labour also struggled to be effective in the new Northern Ireland and struggles still. But there is a rich heritage to draw on and emulate. A Unionism that is suspicious of left wing thinking or union activism is not only stymied as a vehicle of change and in its need for international fraternity. It is untrue to the diversity and richness of the pro-Union past.