Walker, William (1871–1918), socialist and trade unionist, was born 9 January 1871 at 35 McCluny St., Belfast, son of Francis Walker, shipyard boilermaker and latterly trade-union official, and Sarah Walker (née McLaughlin). After attending St George's national school, he was apprenticed as a joiner in the Harland and Wolff shipyard (1885). While serving his apprenticeship he assisted in the organisation of semi-skilled platers’ helpers into what became the National Amalgamated Union of Labour (1891). Briefly a member of a Belfast branch of a small Scottish-based carpenters’ union, which he represented at the 1892 British Trade Union Congress (TUC), he soon joined the Belfast 9th branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ). Commencing a lengthy tenure (1893–1912) as the union's delegate on Belfast Trades Council (BTC), where he served on the organisation and propaganda subcommittee, throughout the 1890s he worked as a joiner with various building and textile machinery firms. Though belonging to a skilled craft union, he vigorously promoted the ‘new [trade] unionism’ of organising semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Involved from 1893 in organising efforts among Belfast's predominantly female linen workers, he served several months (1894–5) as temporary secretary of the newly formed Textile Operatives Society of Ireland before handing over office to a woman. Throughout his career he remained keenly interested in women's rights and the status of women workers.
Walker's socialism and organising militancy clashed with the outlook of the staid and respectable tradesmen then dominant on BTC. Key founder of a Belfast branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), he became its most prominent propagandist. A fluent and energetic speaker, bohemian in dress and cut of hair, he was conspicuous at ILP Sunday-afternoon public meetings amid the evangelical lay preachers on Belfast's Custom House steps. He represented BTC at the 1893 TUC held in Belfast, and at the first Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) (1894). Protestant in religion and pro-union in politics, he sought to forge an independent non-sectarian labour politics as a working-class alternative both to nationalist politics, and to the conservative unionist establishment. During the bitter Belfast–Clyde engineers’ strike (1895–6) – which shattered the comfortable Belfast consensus regarding trade unions as devices for employer-worker collaboration, and forums for conciliating industrial conflict – he sought with mixed results to propagate socialist consciousness. Amid violent clashes with protestant action groups, notably the Belfast Protestant Association of Arthur Trew, the ILP ceased their open-air meetings at the ‘steps’, and Walker was placed for some time under police protection. When the Belfast ILP collapsed in the strike's aftermath, he worked to expand his influence within BTC, assisting in organisation of such semi-skilled sectors as beetling engineers, seamen, and municipal employees. Amid increasing BTC involvement in municipal politics around issues of public health and quality of housing, he was elected to the board of poor law guardians (1899). His election as BTC assistant secretary (1899–1900) and secretary (1900–01) under the presidency of John Murphy, a long-time ally, indicated a power-shift within the body toward the new trade unionism. Dismissed from his job at Clonard foundry after writing as BTC secretary to the War Office regarding the firm's non-compliance with the fair wages clause in its contract, he was blacklisted by local employers and collected trades council victimisation pay. Elected ASCJ district delegate (1901–12), a full-time paid union office, he resigned as BTC secretary, but was soon elected the body's president (1902–5, 1906–7). He was BTC delegate to the ITUC (1899–1905, 1907–11), and ASCJ delegate to the TUC (1901–5).
Now dominant within the Belfast labour movement, whose socialist element was the strongest in Ireland, Walker became the foremost Irish advocate of independent labour political representation, urging affiliation with the British-based Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which after 1906 became the Labour Party. Owing to his efforts, BTC affiliated to the LRC (1902), and an LRC Belfast branch was established (1903). As member of the ITUC parliamentary committee (1902–4), he was instrumental in securing adoption by the 1903 Newry congress of a compromise resolution recommending that Irish trade unions affiliate with the LRC as a means to promote independent labour representation in Ireland. President of the 1904 Kilkenny congress, he devoted his presidential address to passionate argument of the efficacy of labour political action. For the next several years he was the foremost figure in the Irish labour movement. At successive congresses he led Belfast delegates in pressing unsuccessfully for the ITUC to move beyond the compromise formula, and establish its own political organisation as a subordinate constituent of the LRC; he was opposed by labour supporters of the Irish parliamentary party, advocates of a separate Irish labour party, and ‘pure labourists’ who wished the movement to shun all political action.
Defeated in Pottinger ward in elections to Belfast city council (1902), he was elected for Duncairn ward (January 1904), and led a small labour group that sharply attacked corruption among councillors and corporation officials. He was a leading contributor to the Belfast Labour Chronicle (1904–6), joint organ of BTC and the Belfast LRC. As the first LRC parliamentary candidate in an Irish constituency, in the September 1905 North Belfast by-election, with LRC national secretary James Ramsay MacDonald as election agent, he opposed conservative candidate Sir Daniel Dixon (qv), wealthy entrepreneur and sometime lord mayor. Attacking Dixon's public record, rumoured moral laxity, and flamboyant lifestyle, Walker received tacit support from dissident unionist elements represented by the idiosyncratic Independent Orange Order of Thomas Sloan (qv) and Robert Lindsay Crawford (qv). Replying to a Protestant Association questionnaire, which Dixon deftly ignored, Walker expressed sectarian sentiments, asserting that ‘protestantism means protesting against superstition, hence true protestantism is synonymous with labour.’ The resultant alienation of vital catholic support contributed to his defeat by 474 votes in a poll of some 8,400, and damaged his influence within Irish labour circles. Campaigning soon after in the January 1906 general election, he accused Dixon of garnering windfall profits in the sale of sloblands to the corporation; printed in the Labour Chronicle (‘Dodger Dan's Deal’), the allegations resulted in a successful libel action against the printer, and Walker's estrangement from the journal. Defeated again, he reduced Dixon's majority to only 291 votes. However, the return to Westminster of a Liberal government revived the prospect of home rule; in reaction, breaches within unionist opinion were healed, and independent Belfast labour politics rapidly declined. Standing for the Shankill ward aldermanship, Walker was defeated along with all six other labour council candidates (January 1907), followed by heavy defeat in a parliamentary by-election occasioned by the death of Dixon (April 1907).
Walker's ruthlessness in demarcation disputes involving building trades unions led to his six-month resignation as BTC president (1905–6), and was a factor in his decision after January 1907 not to seek further election to BTC office. With a revived Belfast ILP as his base, he concentrated activities within the British labour movement. After addressing the 1907 Belfast conference of the British Labour Party, he was elected for the first of four occasions to the party's executive committee. He was twice defeated in attempts to regain a Belfast city council seat (1908, 1911), and as Labour candidate in the January 1910 general election in the Scottish constituency of Leith Burghs. The rise from 1909 of James Larkin's (qv) ITGWU dented Walker's and Belfast's standing as the unrivalled vanguard of Irish socialism and labour militancy, while Larkin's nationalism challenged Walker's ideological position. His fusion of constitutional unionism with socialist labourism – variously termed ‘Belfast socialism’, ‘Belfast internationalism’, or simply ‘Walkerism’ – was cogently expressed in his pamphlet The Irish question (1908). Advocating nationalisation as the only progressive settlement of the Irish land issue in the general national interest, he argued the impossibility of its realisation by a home rule parliament, bound to be dominated by representatives of the class of peasant proprietors created by the reactionary land transfer policies of successive British governments. At the 1911 ITUC, Walker, deploring efforts to establish a ‘purely local party,‘ utilised the 1903 compromise formula to defeat by three votes a motion to establish an Irish labour party. He subsequently engaged in a celebrated debate over six issues of the Glasgow socialist journal Forward (May–July 1911) with James Connolly (qv), Belfast organiser of the ITGWU and of the Socialist Party of Ireland, on the relationship between socialism and the national question. Accused by Connolly of a ‘false internationalism’ tantamount to imperialism, he retorted that nationalism was a divisive and regressive doctrine, and argued that owing to the complete identity of interest between Irish and British workers – ‘oppressed by the same financial power’ – Irish labour should be part of the larger and more powerful movement.
Vice-chairman of the British Labour Party (1911–12), Walker withdrew his candidacy for the chairmanship and resigned his ASCJ office to accept a position in Belfast in the Irish executive of the government's newly established national insurance scheme (1912). Accordingly, he did not attend the 1912 ITUC at which an Irish Labour Party was launched. Subsequently he became inspector under the insurance act for the north-eastern district of Ireland. Although he may have intended to return to trade unionism and labour politics once the new social services – to which he was sincerely devoted – were well established, it is likely that his decision indicated demoralisation and confusion within the altered political climate, marked by armed mobilisation within Ulster unionism to resist the seeming imminence of home rule.
Through two decades of engagement in Irish workers’ struggles, Walker consistently maintained that ‘the progress of their class and the benefit of their country’ could only be realised within the existing political union with Great Britain, while holding that the safety of that union lay in the assertion of a socially progressive and inclusive version of unionist identity. Ever committed to independent labour politics, he avoided identification as a mere left-leaning political unionist. Ultimately he failed, both in ideology and in practice, to establish the validity of a labour democracy allied with a unionist ethos that was primarily concerned with cross-class collaboration to preserve a communal ascendancy delineated by sectarian identification. His own rhetoric revealed slippage into sectarian bias, an easy equation of protestantism with all that is progressive, and catholicism with all that is backward. In Walker the structure of feeling identified by Raymond Williams (The country and the city) as long endemic among European socialists, of deep revulsion towards pre-industrial and non-urban classes, parties, and ideologies as intrinsically regressive, is compounded by sectarian inflections particular to his locale.
Walker married Margaret Adams, who survived him. His last residence was at Rathcoole, Park Ave., Strandtown, Belfast. He died 23 November 1918 in the Royal Victoria hospital after a lengthy illness, and was buried in Newtownbreda cemetery.