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Peter Hunt

Sectarian murders continue

(August 1975)

From Militant [UK], No. 268, 29 August 1975.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

“1971 or 1972 all over again.” This has been the comment of many people in Northern Ireland in response to the fresh wave of violence which has swept the province in the wake of this year’s anti-internment protests.

Since this year’s anniversary demonstrations began in earnest, Belfast, Derry and other towns have been the scenes of street fighting reminiscent of the fighting which characterised the early years of these troubles. Belfast, in particular, has been shaken by riots, gun battles, explosions and sectarian attacks, all on a scale to match the worst periods of turmoil in the years since 1969. At the time of writing 8 people have died since Saturday August 9th, the date of the 4th anniversary of internment. In the early hours of that day a 17-year-old from Belfast’s New Lodge Road was taken to hospital with a bullet wound in the chest. He was dead on arrival. During the next day sectarian fighting broke out at Percy Street on the peace line between the Shankill and the Falls. This and other incidents escalated into a major confrontation between the Provisional IRA and the Army. In this fighting a 15-year-old and a girl of four were shot dead.

Since then one man in East Belfast has been singled out for assassination, an explosion in a Shankill Road bar, a bar well known as a haunt of the UVF, has accounted for another four victims with over a further 90 being injured in Derry, in the aftermath of the Apprentice Boys parade, the event which spilled into so much bloodshed in 1969 and which precipitated the entry of the troops, there have been daily outbreaks of rioting. Belfast has experienced a daily catalogue of incidents, including many assassination attempts.


Supporters of the MILITANT have consistently pointed out that the Convention will prove incapable of solving the problems of the country. Our arguments have been underlined in red by these recent events. An observer from Mars, knowing nothing of the Northern Ireland situation, sitting in on the recent Convention discussion would have concluded that here was a country which had seen some past trouble but in which old scores had been settled and all could look forward to total reconciliation. In marked contrast to the friendly handshakes and phrases of “total understanding” which floated from the mouths of SDLP and UUUC leaders, has been the recent scenes on the streets of Belfast. Words and gestures are not sufficient to remove the causes of such divisions as exist.

Recently the SDLP and the UUUC have been engaged in private talks, aimed at finding a suitable compromise to put before the Convention when it meets after the Summer recess. And while these parties have been engaged in these closed conflabs somewhere in the stratosphere, their supporters have been locked in conflict on the ground. Thus is politically summarised the impotence of these groups when it comes to offering a way forward.

The problems of Northern Ireland are deeply rooted. Since 1968 the British ruling class have proposed one “final answer” after another. All, it was claimed, would lead to an easing of the tension. All these answers have been shown merely to be different ways of saying the same thing and what this has amounted to for the people of Northern Ireland is quite simply that the ruling class has no answer at all.

The SDLP and UUUC were thrown up by the conflict. They can hold hands in some revamped and renamed Stormont. That will not bring their supporters together. The divisions in the past stirred up by the British ruling class, will remain for so long as working people remain in economic misery and with no organisation fighting to weld them together in struggle.

The Orange Order has in Northern Ireland something like 100,000 members. The Trade Unions have a quarter of a million members. Yet because the might of the Trade Union Movement has not been mobilised it has failed to wield the influence which its numerical strength would permit. The Orange Order had for over fifty years stood behind the Unionist Party and exerted enormous influence on its development. The unions rather than intervene in the political situation behind the Labour Party have sat in the background. The result recently has been that the NILP, the only party to which any unions are affiliated, has declined to a tiny rump with a leadership entirely devoid of any understanding of the role of a section of the working class movement.

It is now necessary for the Labour Movement as a whole to shake off its past reticence and boldly intervene in the situation. On the one hand the decline in the living standards of workers demands a response from the Labour Movement. The limit placed by the Government upon wage rises of 6 per week, at a time when inflation is running at an annual rate of 25% and in a country such as Northern Ireland where 42% of wage earners take home less than 25 per week, spells increased hardship for the mass of the population.

Fighting lead needed

The holding down of wages comes at a time when cuts in public expenditure threaten to undermine basic social services and are cutting huge holes in plans for development. Housing in particular is being badly affected with the number of new house starts in decline as the old stock rapidly depreciates. One in five homes are now unfit for habitation!

In Britain workers can be expected to struggle in defence of their living standards. Although there are some who would like to deny it, the workers of Northern Ireland are no different. This they have proved, even during the worst of the troubles, when strikes have welded Protestant and Catholic together. A fighting lead from the Labour and Trade Union leaders would meet with a response.

But on the other hand the situation itself also cries out for a lead from the unions. At no time in the past has the province teetered so close to the brink of an all-out sectarian confrontation. It is now clear that the Provisional’s ceasefire which has limped along since Christmas, is hanging by a few slender threads. Maura Drumm, at an anti-internment meeting this year in central Belfast, warned that unless Provisional demands were met, the campaign would have to be restarted. “Our people have suffered greatly over the past six years,” she said, “but we will go through the same again if we have to.”

All these are further signs that a growing section of the Provisionals wish the truce to end. If not immediately, then at the end of the Convention’s deliberations it is quite possible that this will happen.

To renew the campaign now would desperately set back the working class movement. Without a doubt it would further unleash a wave of sectarian atrocities in which ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant, would be the sufferers. There are those on both sides whose every action has seemed to be aimed at stirring the Northern Ireland cauldron even further. The Provisional ceasefire did not bring peace, not a day of peace in fact. From such sectarian organisations as the UVF there has flowed, for the past six months and more, a constant stream of assassination attempts and other atrocities. The slaying of members of the Miami showband by a squad of UVF men has brought this campaign into sharper focus.

The ending of the ceasefire would inject another ingredient into the turmoil. It would come at a time when sectarian feelings are on a knife edge. Following the Miami killings there have been a host of sectarian outrages.

Trade Union force

In the face of such dangers it is imperative that the Labour Movement act. Against sectarianism it is only they who can provide an answer. The police, army, UDR and other state forces have done nothing to stop the intimidations and bullyings. To prevent murders, it would be necessary to have a force with support in both Protestant and Catholic working class areas, the bases from which the assassins operate. The police have reacted to the recent murders by setting up a new special squad to deal with them. Already the methods of this squad have brought condemnation from both Loyalists and Republicans. This group will prove no more capable of ending the murder campaigns than any of its predecessors.

But a defence force composed of ordinary working class people, the people who live in the ghettos, would be a different question altogether. The Trade Unions have members in all working class areas, many of them shop stewards and other class conscious workers. Tenants Associations and other community groups have also members who would seek to overcome the problems of sectarianism, as has been proven by the establishment of one community umbrella organisation for the North. The Trade Union Movement, by calling area conferences of such people could begin the task of mobilising non-sectarian, Trade Union controlled defence forces to police all troubled areas and outlaw sectarianism.

Similarly the unions have a responsibility in the political sphere. Although workers are united in an economic sense in the unions themselves, politically they stand apart. If there is to be any political stability the working class base of such parties as the UUUC must be stripped away. Only a Trade Union based party, a fighting Labour organisation, could do this. A province wide conference of all Unions and all Labour organisations should be called, by the Unions, in order to bring into being the nucleus of a new party of the working class. That is the step the Labour activists in Northern Ireland wish to see the Trade Unions take – a fact proven by the recent establishment of the Labour and Trade Union Co-ordinating Group, a group of socialists from the NILP and other Labour Parties and of individual Trade Unionists, who have come together to work for this end. The building of such a party and its commitment to socialist policies is the only way that the lot of the working class people can be bettered.

In Britain, also, the Labour Party has a responsibility. For years It has hidden behind the “sacred” policy of bi-partisanship. Now this policy does not look so sacred as Tory Northern Ireland spokesman Airey Neave, has already threatened to break it.

Bi-partisanship mean the Labour Party carrying out Conservative policies. That is all. British Big Business are responsible for the situation in Northern Ireland. On the basis of their policies there is no way forward. How then could the Labour Party help the situation?

Firstly, it must be said that the best way of improving the situation in Northern Ireland would be to carry out socialist policies in England, something which would involve the nationalisation not only of the commanding heights of the British economy but also that of Northern Ireland.

Secondly instead of using the army to hold down either one section or another of the Northern Ireland population, the Government should give the initiative to the Northern Ireland Trade Unions by giving concrete assistance, firstly in the building of a party of Labour in Northern Ireland.

The longer such policies are delayed the more the people of Northern Ireland will pay in terms of loss of life and economic degradation.

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Last updated: 12 August 2016