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Peter Hadden

Protestant workers and the struggle for socialism

(September 1972)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 5, September 1972.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Can the Protestant working class be won to the fight for class unity and socialism? At the present time of almost total religious polarisation and in face of an impending sectarian holocaust this question is of monumental importance.

The problems of working class Protestants are essentially the same as those of their Catholic brothers. Both face intimidation and the danger of sectarian attack. Both suffer from the same appalling economic conditions. Recent redundancies have hit the Protestant workers, as the lay-offs in Sirocco show, just as badly as the Catholics.

Rising unemployment in the Protestant areas is reflected in the UDA demand for Labour Exchanges in the Shankill and on the Newtownards Road. Yet despite these common problems Catholic and Protestant workers today face each other across a seemingly unbridgeable sectarian divide.

Since direct rule the situation has slid from catastrophe to catastrophe. Repression has been intensified against the Catholics. From this one thing is quite clear. No emissary of British Imperialism can even begin to solve the problems or the Irish people. In the last analysis British rule can only mean misery and repression for both sections of the working class.

Independent Orange Order

Only the working people of the North, Protestant and Catholic together, can end the present fear, intimidation, squalor and exploitation. Only the people of the areas involved can adequately protect their neighbours from the sectarian thugs of either creed. It is only in united action in the building of a mighty labour movement that the unemployment, the acres of slums, the poor wages and all the economic problems caused by capitalism can be fought.

The possibility of building such a movement, especially of winning the Protestants, seem remote indeed. For Socialists, it has been a sad spectacle to see thousands of Protestant workers wooed by politicians like Craig and Faulkner, who in every word and deed are the avowed enemies of the working class.

On the surface the task seems hopeless. Yet the history of this century abounds with examples of how the consciousness of Protestant workers has risen over the narrow sectarianism. Enormous lessons are to be learned from such periods. In particular, the birth and growth of the Independent Orange Order is sufficient answer to those who dismiss the Protestants as colons, inane bigots, fascists or whatever.

The early roots of the IOO are to be found in a vicious, bigoted and reactionary organisation called the Belfast Protestant Association. This vile creation grew as a result of the hostility of working class Orangemen to the well-to-do heads of the Grand Lodge. Its activists were confined to incitement to hatred. In 1901 its most vociferous spokesman, Arthur Trew, was jailed for inciting his followers to attack a Catholic procession.

Yet its successor, the IOO, in 1905 could issue a manifesto which called upon Catholic and Protestants “in their common trials” to “unite on a true basis of nationality” and in 1907 could play an active role in support of Larkin in the Belfast dock strike.

Since then, on numerous occasions, links between workers of both creeds have been forged in action. In the 1919 engineering dispute and the unemployment campaign of the 1930s, sectarianism could play no role in breaking the class ties which were created. These and other isolated examples are only the most striking examples of a class consciousness which has remained with Protestant workers throughout the century.

Despite the Orangeism of areas like the Shankill and Sandy now, these areas have retained strong Labour traditions. It is no accident that areas such as these have periodically provided the backbone for the relatively weak Labour Party in the North.

Industrially it has been the Protestants who have spearheaded the struggle against British and native capitalism. 225,318 working days were lost through strikes in 1970 due to industrial disputes. Industries such as Shorts, Harland and Wolfe, Mackies and Sirocco, today the centres of all can boast a fine record of industrial militancy. The workers of Sirocco two years, ago took unofficial action in support of the December 8th strike called against the Industria1 Relations Act, despite the fact that this Act does not yet apply to NI. Yet, a few months ago, these same workers were solid in support of the Vanguard organised strike against direct rule.

Unionists splitting

Beneath the surface these class traditions remain. In a distorted form, the shattering of the Unionist monolith since direct rule has revealed this. The most significant development has been the announcement by the LAW that they intend to become a political party. Aligned with them are the UDA, while in opposition stand the Vanguard chiefs and the right wing of the old Unionist Party.

Although not on major class issues, this is a split along class lines. To the businessmen on the Vanguard Executive, the UDA and the LAW betray dangerous “socialistic tendencies”, while they, to the working class Protestants, appear no different from the “sabre rattling” Unionist politicians of the past.

Above all else, it has been the exposure of the empty bluff of Craig and co. which has brought this division to the fore. Since Direct Rule the promises of industrial and other action then made by the Vanguard tops have come to nothing. Craig is more than prepared to incite sectarian violence as at Ormeau Park or more recently when he warned of the existence of “4 or 5 armed Protestant commando organisations.” Nor does he shirk from threatening the annihilation of the entire Catholic population as when, during his “Twelfth” speech he warned that, in the event of a confrontation, it would be impossible to distinguish between IRA activists and ordinary Catholic civilians.

Reign of terror

He and other middle class hatemongers of his ilk are content to watch the blood of Catholic and Protestant workers flow in the Belfast ghettos. But when it comes to industrial or other action which would adversely effect the profit margins of these same statesmen they are quick to draw back from conflict.

At bottom these leading proponents of “loyalism” are mortally afraid of their supporters. The Vanguard leadership is well aware that if its UDI call was acted upon it would entail the mobilisation of thousands of Protestant workers whose demands would not end at independence but would quickly spread to seeking an answer to the economic and social problems they face, problems which are the result of the very system the Vanguard leadership upholds.

But neither the UDA nor LAW are any more capable of acting in the interests of Protestants than are the Unionist Party or the Vanguard. It is true that Hull and the UDA inner council have had to make certain concessions to the class aspirations of their followers. So too have the UVF who have condemned sectarianism – on the grounds that “the working class people of whatever creed are the real inheritors of peace and prosperity.”

Such statements fall flat in the light of the bigoted orientation of these groupings. In reality the UDA inner council are prepared to rain down no end of terror on the Catholic population. Quoted in the Sunday Times – one of the inner council has spoken out in favour of “limited violence to end violence – we can turn it on and turn it off again.”

Hull’s socialism rings equally as hollow as his “non-sectarianism”. The LAW in supporting and calling for intensified army repression against the Catholics is helping to bury the very possibilities of establishing socialism in this country. For loyalty to the union means supporting the link with British Imperialism and support for the army methods is support for the same methods which will be used, not just against the IRA, not just against the Protestant groups should the need arise, but against the organised working class whenever they rise to the fight for a socialist alternative.

Labour lead would stem sectarianism

It has only been the silence of the Labour leaders on all the major class issues that has permitted the enemies of the working class to demagogically manipulate the traditions of the Protestant workers. Recently a UDA commander, interviewed in the Belfast Telegraph (l0/7/72) made the following statement; “A certain MP in a mohair suit and a good tan came to this door to ask me for my vote. He had a hell of a cheek. That kind of guy will not represent the Protestants any more. If Stormont ever comes back I hope there will be more Labour men there”.

What better answer could there be to the lame excuse for inactivity on the part of the Labour leaders that the working class are only interested in sectarianism and not in Socialism?

Had there been conscious intervention on the part of the Labour movement three years ago the growth of sectarianism would have been thwarted. Even now it is not too late to ward off a massive sectarian confrontation. If the Labour leaders took up the burning questions of defence against intimidation and sectarian attack the issues of housing, wages and jobs, they would quickly make inroads into both sections of the workers.

Socialism or sectarian slaughter

That signs of class consciousness are appearing through the cracks in Unionism at a time when no class lead has been given, is a sure sign of the enormous response with which a class alternative would be met. Were the Labour leaders to fight for the creation of a non-sectarian defence force, organised through the Trade Unions, coupled with a campaign around a full Socialist programme the gulf of sectarianism could be bridged.

For the working class of Ireland the warning lights are on. Unless a lead is forthcoming now the tentative gropings of Protestants in the direction of socialism could well be swallowed in a nightmare of sectarian slaughter which would engulf not only them but the Irish Labour movement as a whole.

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