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Peter Hadden

What now for the Peace Marchers?

(September 1976)

From Militant [UK], No. 322, 17 September 1976.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The third of the peace marches organised by the women’s peace movement in Belfast was the biggest. On Saturday August 28th women in their thousands together with a significant number of men paraded up the Shankill Road through the heart of “loyalist” Belfast.

Most of the banners called simply for peace. One carried by a group of the Falls women referred obviously to the threats made by Marie Drumm on the anniversary of internment that the Provisionals would take Belfast apart “brick by brick”. It read “Let’s build peace brick by brick“. Nothing could better illustrate the extent to which the methods of the Provos have alienated Catholic workers.

Estimates of the numbers of those who attended the final rally vary from 25,000 to 30,000. As one of the organisers said, by the numbers who had turned out, the people of the Shankill and the Falls had shown to the world that there was no difference between these two communities.

The Northern Ireland conflict did not materialise out of the atmosphere. Like a weed it is fertilised by poverty. In its present form it stems from the past policies of the British rulers. The peace women point at the guilty men in this society. They point at the paramilitaries, particularly the Provisionals. But the fact must be faced that it was the British ruling class who first fermented the sectarian divisions in order that they could hold on to their privileges. The British Army today provides no solution. It has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed. The killing of Majella O’Hare in South Armagh underlines the fact that their real role is one of repression, not at all of defence.

A movement demanding “peace” and saying nothing else is not enough. Despite the success this movement has had in Belfast this is the case. The organisers of the campaign argue that they should avoid “dangerous” political issues such as the role of the security forces or any class issues. If they were to take any of these up, they say, they would lose their broad support. Equally they insist that they must steer totally clear of all other groups. Given the role of most political parties in Northern Ireland this is not surprising. However the women have been approached by a number of trade unionists who wished to openly co-operate with them. Their reaction was that they would openly co-operate with no-one.

What the peace women see as their strength is their weakness. To avoid controversial issues in Northern Ireland is to avoid all issues. At the moment with the momentum of mass marches behind them they can get away with their approach. However, this “broad appeal” which they treasure has only the strength of paper. Without class ideas and a class approach to cement real working class unity it will not last for long. The three rallies so far organised have ended, not with speeches spelling out a way forward, but merely in hymn singing and prayers. Given no lead the mass support must wane. And when the pendulum swings away from the peace movement all the controversial issues which they ignore today will sheer up in front of them tearing at the “unity” they have constructed.

There is only one force in Northern Ireland which is capable of building a united class movement – the trade union movement. There would be nothing flimsy about the unity of workers supporting a trade union movement fighting for class policies. The women have shown what is possible. With bravery and determination they marched through the threats of those sectarians who tremble at the prospect of the people coming together. If workers are to benefit from what they have begun the trade union movement must intervene attempting to lead people around the demands of its Better Life for All campaign.

Sunday 28th August was not only an historic day for the people of the Shankill. If it was a day of success for the “peace movement”, it was a day which the organised trade union movement have little to be proud. A few days before this march the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions announced that they would be carrying their Better Life for All banner on the demonstration and would march as a body from the centre of Belfast to the Agnes Street starting point and from there to Woodvale Park. This move followed pressure from many rank and file workers who were demanding action in pursuit of the aims of the Better Life for All campaign.

Although they initially welcomed this decision the organisers of the peace movement pressurised the union leaders not to march as a body and not to carry their banners. Statements also appeared from a few loyalists warning of trouble if the unions marched. There were vague threats that the marchers would be stopped at Peters Hill at the foot of the Shankill and a few hundred yards from Agnes Street.

First the union leaders announced that if there was any trouble they would disband their parade and take down their banners. This statement, little more than an invitation to their opponents to attack them, was followed by another released twenty four hours before the march was to start, announcing that they had decided not to walk separately and instead calling on trade unionists to join the main procession as individuals.

This cowardly decision has damaged greatly the credibility of the union campaign. The manner in which they cancelled their parade has made it appear that only a few threats from paramilitary groups are enough to force the unions to retreat. A tremendous opportunity has been thrown in the air. Had the march gone ahead, had union banners been carried up the Shankill Road despite loyalist opposition, it would have been a staggering blow to these groups.

In May 1974 during the Ulster Workers Council stoppage the unions were trodden underfoot by sectarian groups. Now the union leadership has tossed away the opportunity to show that the position has been reversed. The march should have gone ahead and a sufficient force of stewards should have been organised to ensure in the event of any serious trouble that it was not stopped.

The unions have the organisation and the means of hammering out a programme to end the troubles. But their leaders have failed to show the courage or initiative to place them in a leading position. The peace women lack organisation, programme, or direction. Nevertheless it must be said that they have audacity. If only the Better Life for All leaders had a tenth of the boldness of these women enormous new life would be breathed back into that campaign.

Rank and file trade unionists must now see to it that such a decision as that taken before the Shankill rally is not repeated. Pressure must now be placed on the leaders to begin now the preparation for a province wide general strike against the twin horrors of sectarianism and poverty. The women have shown how many people they can call out on a Saturday. Only the unions can take this any further. A stoppage during the week should be begun in the morning at the workplace with shop floor meetings to discuss how the workers can combat sectarianism by organising their own defence, and also to hammer out a socialist programme to tackle economic problems. This should be followed in the afternoon by mass demonstrations which would reveal the real power of the working class.

Such an action could be followed up by a rank and file delegate conference in which the movement itself would decide the way forward the campaign must take. It could also elect a new campaign committee to run the campaign and take the place of the present body which consists of those invited on by the Northern Ireland committee.

Only with the perspective of action such as this can the union campaign succeed in fulfilling its objectives and forging Protestant and Catholic workers into united action on their own behalf.

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Last updated: 12 August 2016