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Peter Hunt

Protestant workers’ poverty

(July 1974)

From Militant Irish Monthly, July–August 1974.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Since the Ulster Workers’ Council showed their strength in the two week General Strike which halted normal life in Northern Ireland, the focus of the press has been on the activities of the paramilitary Protestant organisations. So the three-day conference which brought together the UWC, the UVF, the UDA, the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Commando brought immediate headlines.

The talks were surrounded by speculation on two issues. The call by West Belfast UDA for talks with the Provisional IRA and the possibility of a break between these organisations, working class in composition, and middle class “Loyalist” leaders such as Craig, Paisley and West. Neither proposal came to anything. The idea of talks with the Provos was “totally rejected” according to spokesmen from the meeting. Instead of standing independently of the Craig’s and co., it was decided that a pressure group should be formed to “influence” these politicians.

Following this decision, Harry West announced that he was “very pleased” overall with the outcome of the conference. The conference came after a long period of confusion among Protestant workers. It followed disillusion at the empty threats of one set of Unionist and Loyalist politicians after another.

West, Paisley and Craig were excluded because the UWC strike drove the lesson home that the action of the working people carried a thousand times more weight than the words of the middle class statesmen. Their initial hesitancy about the strike was well known and resented among the Protestant paramilitary groupings.

The conference and the strike does reflect the fears of the Protestant workers and an ill-defined demand on the part of the rank and file “loyalist” workers for “something new and something better”. They have felt let down by the British who they were always taught to view as their benefactors. They have felt betrayed by their own leaders and they have been driven to action by the continued campaign of the Provisionals.

More recently, Protestant workers have felt the lash of repression from their supposed “protectors” in England. It was no surprise that the delegates from these working class groupings who nearly all have members in Long Kesh, should demand the end of Internment and endorse the UVF proposal for a two-thirds remission of sentence for those convicted for political crimes. A 29 year old Protestant arrested during the strike and just released has told of his treatment: “During the two days they punched, kicked and kept me standing for long periods. It was really rough. They even refused me medical treatment and I have an ulcer complaint”.

His conclusion about internment: “Let everyone go now”. He went on to say, according to the Newsletter, that “Loyalist politicians were foolish in their single-minded approach of only urging release of Protestant detainees. No difference should be made between Protestant and Roman Catholic. Free them all”.

Beneath the surface of the Protestant discontent is the biting poverty endured by those who suffer the conditions of the ghettos, especially in Belfast and Derry. Many times Protestant spokesmen, even convicted UVF murderer Gusty Spence, have pointed to the living conditions of Protestants as being every bit as bad as the Catholics in many areas. But the decisions reached by the UDA, UVF, UWC and company will give no answer to the problems of the mass of the working class. These organisations, many times have talked of “the class issues” but they put forward no proposals to challenge the rule of wealth and privilege. Their solution was that NI should have a system at self government in which Catholics would have a role to play. Not, they are at pains to stress, a new Assembly.

“We won’t have power-sharing because that is a dirty word, but we don’t see anything wrong with having Catholics in administrative committees, possibly as chairmen”.

A new administration, whatever its structure, cannot tackle the day to day problems of working people. Only the building of a working class movement could do that. The UWC and the other groupings are incapable of building or helping to build such a movement. They have been welded together by action, by the feeling that they are getting somewhere after the strike.

This “unity“ contains a multitude of contradictions. The UWC was formed out of the collapse of the old Loyalist Association of Workers, an organisation which discredited itself in the eyes of Protestant workers. Within the UWC are people with widely differing political views. On the one hand to the “left” are those like Glen Barr who is known to have opposed the Industrial Relations Act and who demonstrated a class understanding when he appealed to British workers not to support troops being used to break the loyalist strike on the grounds that their use in Ireland would be followed by their use as strike-breakers in England.

To the right stand people like Harry Murray who opposed the recent walkout of workers in the shipyard against the Industrial Relations Act. Many of these figures have demonstrated their right wing stance by their call for the breaking of links with the ICTU. They denounce the ICTU as influenced by Republicans and Communists.

The UDA, the UVF are other groups who are also represented on the Executive of the UWC. Now all these have come together. Yet before the strike, in the atmosphere of disillusion these groups were at each other’s throats. A few years ago the UDA was formed as a mass force. It held together during its first months with the activity over the no-go areas and the many masked demonstrations. But as soon as it became apparent that the organisation was getting nowhere it split into warring factions.

Because the leaders of the UWC and those who sat together at this conference can offer no real alternative to their supporters their “unity” must suffer the same fate.

It is now up to the Labour Movement to intervene and muster the support of both Catholic and Protestant workers in opposition to all sectarianism. A motion from Belfast Trades Council to next month’s ICTU Conference calls for action and policies to unite the working class and “win them from sectarian demagogue’s whose only object is to keep workers divided and vulnerable to attacks made on the Trade Unions and workers standards of living”.

This is a motion to be passed and acted upon! The UWC call for a separate NI Trade Union Federation would spell disaster for the Trade Union Movement in the North. Moves are being made to convert the trade unions into sectarian Protestant organisations.

Unity of all workers, Catholic and Protestant, North and South with the Labour Movement in Britain also – this is what is required. A separate Northern Federation would probably lead to a split between the Unions and the emergence of Protestant and Catholic Trade Unions.

The UWC might welcome this. So would Phil Curran, formerly of the Catholic Ex-servicemen’s Association who advocates Catholic Trade Unions. For the working class it would be a disaster, weakening their ability to struggle.

Only the Labour Movement can unite the working class, not the Loyalist groupings, not organisations such as the Provos whose campaign has only deepened sectarianism. The Labour Government must give the lead by ending its Tory policies in regard to Ireland, ending the repression and internment.

A Conference must be called by the Trade Unions and all working class organisations in the North to fill the political vacuum by forming a party of Labour. Such a party, based on socialist policies linked to the Labour Party in the South and to the LP in Britain all fighting for socialist ideas could rapidly transform the situation in these islands. The British Labour Party if they carried through a socialist programme in Britain, would be doing the best possible for the Movement in Ireland.

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