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Peter Hadden

Northern ICTU Conference

Support Grows for a Labour Party

(February 1980)

From Militant Irish Monthly, February 1980.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Northern Ireland economy may soon reach such a feeble state that it will be incapable of recovering. This was the warning issued by Jim McCusker, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions [NIC-ICTU], at a conference to discuss the problems of unemployment in the North.

Three hundred people attended this conference, a large turnout since the NIC had only decided to open the conference to trade union members as opposed to a few trade union appointed delegates, a few days earlier. Invitations had been issued to MPs, District Councillors and a number of other organisations.

On the way into the conference, delegates had to pass a large lobby organised by the Labour and Trade Union Group [L&TU Group] and its Youth for Socialism Campaign. The lobby was called to protest at the invitations which had been issued to the sectarian bigots and Tories who make up about 90% of the councillors and MPs in the North. The message of the lobby was clearly spelt out: there is no right of place at any trade union conference or meeting for representatives of the right wing and sectarian political parties.

Tory Cuts

Despite the invitations issued only a handful of Councillors and only 2 MPs bothered to attend – this demonstrating clearly the real contempt with which they regard the trade union movement. From the floor of the Conference a number of speakers, especially the Labour and Trade Union Group members who were present as delegates from their respective unions took up this point.

Manus Maguire, from the Poly Students’ Union, and Billy Lynn from Belfast Trades Council, explained the disastrous effects which the Tory cuts would have. They pointed out that the solutions offered by the NIC, especially the creation of a State Development Consortium, would never solve the problems of the economy. Instead of tinkering with the system, socialist policies were required. Both stressed the need for more decisive action by the trade unions against the Tories and stressed that this should be independent trade union action with no links with the group of bigots and reactionaries who had been invited to the conference.

It was when two of these political representatives came to the rostrum that the indignation felt by many of the delegates at their presence came to the fore. Councillor Bleakes, a well-known loyalist figure, had the cheek to refer to the good work done by the unions in keeping people together – when, in fact, it has been partly because of the sectarian actions by the likes of him that the unions have had to fight to maintain the unity of their members.

Labour Party

But when Gerry Fitt blamed the return of the Tory Government on trade unionists who voted Conservative because they wanted to buy their council houses, he was met with cries of opposition from all over the floor. Bill Webster of Derry Trades Council gave Gerry Fitt his answer. He pointed out that when the cuts were recently put through Westminster, Fitt had not even been present. He explained that the real reason for the fall of the Labour Government had been the capitalist policies of its right wing. However, the struggle of the unions, he said, is a political struggle: “We need a Conference of this movement with community organisation and Independent Labour Groups and Parties to build a Labour Party in this country.” This speech was by far the best received by the conference, with prolonged applause and even some of the delegates getting to their feet to clap.

Paddy Devlin, of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, attempted to defend the presence of the political representatives. He attacked Bill Webster for using the conference to advocate the views of the Labour and Trade Union Group. But Mickey Duffy (ATGWU) answered him by clearly explaining the need for political action. The unions, he said, always fight on two fronts – the industrial and political front. In Northern Ireland, the political arm of the unions has been tied behind the back of the movement. The time has come to use this arm in defence of living standards.

Another key theme of delegate after delegate from the floor was the need for action. The call was made for the organisation of a Day of Action as a first step in the fight against the Tory Government. The Northern Ireland Committee document – Jobs, An Action Programme – was criticised because it outlined no strategy of action and because it lacked any programme of demands around which action could be organised. The demand was raised for a further conference of rank and file trade union delegates – this time with resolutions and amendments permitted so that the Labour Movement could democratically work out its own programme. A call made by two delegates that a resolution of support be sent to the British steel unions received enthusiastic applause.

Day of Action

In the face of this discussion from the floor, the Chairman decided to close the meeting an hour early. Terry Carlin, the Northern Ireland officer of ICTU, summed up the discussion. This he managed to do without any mention of the issues which had dominated the debate – the presence of MPs, the need for a Labour Party, the call for a date for a Day of Action and even the demand for support to be sent to the steel workers.

Trade unionists will now have to attend their branch meetings and their Trades Councils and ensure that the pressure is applied on the NIC to organise a day of Action and also to prepare for a rank and file conference of the movement to continue the discussion on the initial issues raised at this event.

Eighty Militants [copies of newspaper] were sold at the Conference and several hundred leaflets produced by the L&TU Group were distributed.

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