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Peter Hunt

Peace Movement: Labour Movement must intervene

(October 1976)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 47, October 1976.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Since the Maguire children were crushed to death in mid-August the political climate in Northern Ireland has been dominated by the peace campaign. The media, the press, the radio and TV have slung their full weight behind this movement which began with the women of Andersonstown and snowballed to encompass almost every area.

In the initial ‘peace’ marches, when tens of thousands of people were brought onto the streets and the revulsion of the overwhelming majority of the workers at the activities of the para-militaries was clearly shown. This paper has continuously argued that the unity of the Protestant and Catholic working class people in Northern Ireland is not only necessary bit it is also the most likely prospect for the coming period. The peace movement has proven our argument correct. Protestant and Catholic have marched side by side in every rally. Most significantly the so-called peace line which divided the Falls and the Shankill since 1969 was breached when the women of the Falls area marched through to meet with a rapturous reception form the people of the Shankill who had turned out to welcome them.

The successes of the women in mobilising support in area after area left the para-military groups floundering. Nothing could better serve to illustrate the degree to which the methods of struggle of the Provisionals in particular have alienated them from the workers in the areas on which they lean for support. On the Protestant side also the movement has shown the rejection by the people of those who seek to stir up sectarianism.

However the question has arisen in most peoples minds – ‘What can the peace movement achieve?’ It is true that it has provided a magnificent demonstration of the will of the people to resist sectarianism. But can it go further than that? In brief, the answer is that given the present nature of the campaign it cannot.

Every rally has ended with the reading of a simple statement calling for peace and the singing of a few hymns. Beyond this the campaign has said nothing. Its organisers have stated that they want a campaign with one objective only – Peace. Other issues they argue are controversial and therefore divisive. Hence the absence of political speeches, slogans, etc. from these demonstrations.

The women say that they are opposed to all violence. However, they have simply avoided the question of the role of the Army and the police. Support or non-support for these forces is one of the ‘controversial’ issues which is to be avoided at all costs. A recent statement summed up their position. They called on people who had information on any act of violence to ‘act according to their conscience’. Because of their support form working class women they find it impossible to openly call for support for the army and the police so they compromise with a statement which doses everything else except openly argue for such support.

Not enough

In this is summed up their dilemma. The unity which they have built rests on the thin and flimsy paraphernalia of peace and nothing else. So long as thousands of people swell out behind them in monster demonstrations their approach seems successful. But the momentum which has spilled people onto the streets must eventually subside. In fact this process is already taking place. After a few marches even the most committed of the marchers will be asking, ‘where do we go from here’? The controversial issues such as the role of the state forces will rear their heads whether or not the leaders of the campaign like it.

It is not sufficient to simply demand peace. The violence did not suddenly materialise out of some peculiar cloud formation in 1969. Unless the real causes of the troubles are analysed no movement can find a way out of the sectarian deadlock.

The Northern conflict assumes its present form because of the past policies of the British ruling class. It was they who cynically manipulated the religious division to set one side against the other in order that they could continue to rule the roost. Today the British bosses would like to see the temperature of the conflict reduced, but the poison has already been injected and they can find no antidote. The army has been used as an instrument of brutal repression. The death of Majella O’Hare in South Armagh is only one case in a long list of similar atrocities. The deaths of the Maguire children were as mush the responsibility of the army as of the Provisionals. It was, after all, the army who shot dead the driver of the car which then crushed the children.

Also beneath the surface of the violence are the desperate economic conditions which are daily worsening and adding greater hardship to the working class people of the Province. 60,000 people are unemployed. These people face no prospect of getting jobs in the foreseeable future. Just as poverty gives rise to violence in the major cities in England where it takes the form of football hooliganism or occasionally racialism, so in Northern Ireland it underlies the troubles.

There can be no lasting peace until these facts are recognised and dealt with. Internationally the capitalist system is in crisis. The rotten brew of capitalist society is bubbling over at the top in the form of social disorder. One country after another has faced rioting in the streets of its major cities and violent outbursts especially from the youth who have been offered nothing from the system except dead-end jobs or unemployment. The lessons clear. Peace in Northern Ireland means the abolition of poverty. It means the unity of the working class behind the banner of the labour movement. It means a struggle against state repression and exploitation.

As the peace campaign of Mrs Williams and Miss Corrigan losses its mass momentum, and because of the refusal of its leaders to take up these issues, it must degenerate into merely a movement with seemingly pious ideals cloaked in religious phrases.

To say this is not to deny these women their courageous role in bringing people onto the streets, particularly their historic march up the Shankill Road. Nor is it to take away from the unity which the people of one working class area after another have shown. Only by building on this unity, by creating a class movement of workers on the streets against sectarianism and also against poverty, can this be done.

The trade union Better Life for All Campaign did couple these objectives. Unfortunately the leaders of this campaign have allowed it to slip into virtual activity. Instead of using the unity demonstrated in the peace marches as the basis of renewed activity on their part they have used the women’s movement as an excuse for doing virtually nothing themselves. Prior to the Shankill Road demonstration the Unions had stated that they participate as a separate body behind their own banner. A few loyalists on the Shankill objected and trouble was threatened. The women also applied pressure on the union leaders to change their mind which they promptly did. Less than24 hours before the march began, as the major unions were preparing for their intervention, the officers of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions announced that the parade would be cancelled and instead called on trade unionists to march with their families.

There must be no repeat of such a decision. The trade unions with their quarter of a million members have the organisation and the authority to mount a campaign which will weld an enormous movement of workers out of the desire of all workers for an end to sectarianism which the peace movement has demonstrated. Against sectarianism the unions have the power to organise workers to defend themselves.

Equally the Better Life for All Campaign has already linked the fight against sectarianism with the struggle to improve the living conditions of the people. The unions have the capacity to work out the socialist policies to answer the problems inflicted upon us by capitalism. They could intervene politically in Northern Ireland by creating a Party of the working class which could put forward candidates to represent the interests of workers.

To achieve these ends the trade unions campaign must be given new life. If the women can bring thousands onto the streets on a Saturday, the unions can bring tens of thousands on a working day. Nothing could show better the power of the organised working class to resist sectarianism and also to fight poverty than the closing down of industry, shops and offices in a one day protest strike and day of action.

Such an event should be organised. But it must be organised to be a success. Preparation must begin weeks in advance. Organising Committees should be established in every area. Where there are already Trades Council or Better Life for All Campaign Councils these should be extended to take in representatives from all major factories and offices in the area. In districts in which there are no Trades Council or Campaign Committees new organising committees should be established. In order to prepare the ground shop floor meetings should be held to discuss preparations locally for such a stoppage. Activities in industrial estates could be co-ordinated factory-to-factory. Given a lead and a direction the workers would organise effectively.

The one-day strike itself should not be merely a closing of industry. It should begin in the morning with all workers going to work and at their workplace meetings should be held to hammer out practical ways of organising defence of working class in the factories and in their homes and on their way to and form work as well as the issue of a new political organisation of the working class could be discussed in detail.


Afternoon rallies in every major centre with the emphasis of a major rally in the Belfast area would give workers confidence by showing them their real power. The actual experience of thousands of workers, factory by factory, office by office, estate by estate, marching together behind the banners of the organised trade union movement would do more in a matter of a few hours to cow sectarianism than all the speeches, papers and pamphlets etc. which have been written on the subject in the last seven years. Without exaggeration such a rally would be an actual turning point in the Northern Ireland situation.

Unlike the women’s peace movement the trade unions would be demonstrating a power which could then be applied to the situation. Even the women have claimed successes in preventing intimidations, hijackings, etc. If the women can do this there is absolutely no limit to what the unions can do. If then women can drive away hijackers and intimidators, the unions can brush aside the murdered, the intimidators and the Mafias who operate the protection rackets as well as the so-called security forces with their brutal house searches and repression.

The establishment of a Trade Union Defence Force would place sectarianism in chains. If this were linked to the arousing of the movement of the working class on a socialist programme the basis of real peace would be established in Northern Ireland – peace based on an end to repression, exploitation and sectarianism and on the emergence of a new social system in which the burden of misery and want would be lifted of the backs of the working class.

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