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Peter Hunt

End killings – call trade union conference

(September 1975)

From Militant Irish Monthly, Issue 36, September 1975.
Transcribed and 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 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 the 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. Up to 20 people have died since August began.


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 North. Our arguments have been underlined in red by the recent events. In very marked contrast to the friendly hand-shakes and phrases of “total understanding” which floated from the mouths of SDLP and UUUC leaders, have been the recent scenes on the streets of Belfast. Words and gestures are not sufficient to remove the causes of such divisions as exist in society.

Recently the SDLP and UUUC have 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 confabs their supporters have been locked in conflict on the ground. This is summarised the impotence of these groups when it comes to showing a way forward.

The problems of Northern Ireland are deeply rooted. Since 1969 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 the North is quite simply that the ruling class has no answer at all.

The SDLP and the UUUC were thrown up by the conflict. Even if they could hold hands in some kind of revamped and renamed Stormont this would not bring their supporters together. The divisions, in the past stirred up by the British ruling class, will remain for so long as working-class people remain in economic misery and with no political organisation fighting to weld them together in struggle.

If there is to be a future free of the fear, harassment, intimidation and poverty which have characterised the life style of 1,000’s of workers in recent years, then it will take the emergence of a political organisation of the working-class bonding Catholics and Protestants together in struggle, not the transparent “unity” of middle class politicians, to bring this about. The trade unions in the North 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 unions, rather than intervene in the political situation in tandem with 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 the working-class movement.

It is now more than ever necessary for the Labour movement as a whole to shake of 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.

And on the other hand the situation on the streets and the sectarianism also cries out for a lead from the Unions. At no time in the past has the Province teetered so near to the rink of an all-out sectarian confrontation. It is now clear that the Provisional ceasefire which has limped along since the new year is hanging by a few slender threads. Maura Drumm, speaking at an anti-internment meeting this year in central Belfast, warned that unless Provo 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”. Her final words to her supporters as she called on them to join the struggle if the call came, were “May your hand be steady and your aim be true”.

Two bombs, wrecking Lurgan railway station, a host of incidents in Belfast, not to mention a full-scale gun battle with troops, a statement from the North Armagh brigade of the Provos threatening to call off the truce – all these are further signs that a growing section of the movement wish it to end. If not immediately, then at the end of the Convention’s deliberations this would be the likely scenario.

Labour Party

As in the past the campaign can only mean a desperate setback for the working-class movement. Without a doubt a renewal would further unleash a wave of sectarian atrocities in which working class people, Catholic and Protestant, would be the sufferers. There are those on both sides who every action has seemed to be aimed at stirring the cauldron even further.

The Provisionals ceasefire did not bring peace. From such sectarian organisations as the UVF there has flowed for the past six months or more, a constant stream of assassinations and other such 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 has been a host of sectarian outrages.

The only result of a renewed campaign would be either to push the Province to the brink of civil war or else to precipitate a long period of struggle in which the Provisionals would inevitably be defeated. In the face of such dangers it is imperative that the Labour movement acts.

Against sectarianism it is only they who can provide an answer. The police, the army, UDR and other state forces have done nothing to stop intimidations and killings. 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.

But a defence force of 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 one community umbrella organisation for the North. The trade union movement by calling a conference of all trade unionists and such organisations could begin the task of mobilising a non-sectarian trade union controlled defence force to police all troubled areas and outlaw sectarianism. The funeral of the Protestant lorry driver Samuel Llewellyn who was shot in the Falls Road area was attended by both Catholic and Protestants. Messages of sympathy came from all sides to his family. A request was made for his funeral to go along the Falls Road so that people there could show their sympathy. This is an indication of the feelings of opposition and impotence that large sections of the population in the North feel at the sense-less and brutal sectarian killings.

But the Belfast Trades Council could have given us such a lead by calling a public meeting and demonstration by using the structures of the trade union movement – the branch committees, the trades councils and the shop steward’s committees. A meeting like this could have been a spur to the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU to convene a conference on a Province wide scale.

Similarly the unions have a responsibility on 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 and the SDLP 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 must 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 creation of a mass Labour Party. The building of such a party and its commitment to socialist policies is the only way that all the problems which face the working-class people in the North can be solved.

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