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Peter Hunt

Belfast picket shot

TU Defence Force needed to protect workers

(January 1975)

From Militant [London], Issue 240, 24 January 1975.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

On Friday, January 21st, two gunmen attacked a group of workers on picket duty outside Belfast Dairy. A volley of shots was fires at the workers but, fortunately, only one man was shot in the foot.

Workers in the Northern Ireland Dairies earn a weekly pittance of £23.60 plus threshold. For four weeks these workers have been on strike demanding a wage of £40 for a forty hour week.

The attempted murder of these pickets was a calculated attempt on the one hand to intimidate these workers back to work, and on the other to sow the seeds of sectarian division into the dispute in which basic working class solidarity had been successful in binding workers of all creeds together. The attack came after a weakening of the strike as a number of large dairies in the Belfast area drifted back to work. Those workers still on strike were employees of the Northern Dairies and Kennedy’s both of which have a work force which is largely Catholic in composition. Cregagh Dairies, with its largely Protestant work force, had just gone back to work. Consequently, the men on picket duty were, and were known to be, overwhelmingly Catholic.

However, the result of the shooting was not to divide workers from worker, on a sectarian basis. The workers in Cregagh Dairy responded to this vicious attack by once again coming out on strike.

Press Abuse

The response of the press has been to play down the significance of this shooting. Where reported, it has only commanded brief comment. In a similar manner, the killing of a picket in Larne, during the recent lorry drivers dispute, was glossed over by the press. This same press was not so shy when it came to the case of the Shrewsbury Two, now serving gaol sentences in England, under the 1875 Conspiracy Act. “Violence” on a picket line only merits attention from the press when it seems to come from the workers.

Northern Ireland milk workers have been the subject of a torrent of abuse from the media. They have also faced vicious intimidation. Groups of farmers have broken into striker’s homes and have threatened and attacked the strikes.

Several leading members of the Strike Committee have received threats to their lives. The culmination of this intimidation has been the shooting incident itself.

The leaders of the Trade Union movement in Northern Ireland have watched the developments in the milk dispute without intervening in support of these workers. In future, the leaders of the movement must be made to respond to the needs of their members by backing justified action.

Cowardly attacks on pickets will continue so long as the Labour movement permits them to continue. The workers of the Cregagh Dairies have shown the way in which the movement must respond. Against those who would disrupt the solidarity of any strikers, must be set the might of the Labour and Trade Union movement. If pickets are going to be attacked then picket lines must be defended with whatever force is necessary.

The example of the Shrewsbury Two shows that the “law” cannot be relied upon to defend strikers. This, the milk me painfully discovered when, while picketing at Bangor, they were beset by the forces of the RUC and UDR. The working class must mobilise its own defence within its own ranks. A Trade Union Defence Force to defend pickets, to defend all workers from sectarian attacks, must be established.

This incident should be the cue to the Northern Ireland Labour and Trade Union movement to convene a Conference of all workers’ organisations in the Province. This Conference should discuss firstly, how to organise support for the milk men. Secondly, it should discuss the attempted murder of the pickets and set about organising a Trade Union Defence Force which could be called upon to protect picket lines in all future disputes.

The right to picket was won by the struggle of the workers’ organisations in the past. Bold action on the part of these organisations is needed urgently to prevent any infringement of this right in the future.

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