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Peter Hadden

Workers’ voice must be heard

Almost one in six out of work ... one in three below poverty line ...

(October 1980)

From Militant [UK], No. 522, 3 October 1980.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Tony Benn has stated that mass unemployment in Britain could lead to violence in the streets like that of Northern Ireland. He is quite correct.

The de-industrialisation of Britain would create conditions similar to those endured by the workers of Belfast, Derry other parts of Northern Ireland. Already this province suffers 15% unemployment.

Job losses are mounting. In the last few weeks three key factories in Derry have announced or threatened major redundancies. Early in October the gates of the Grundig factory outside Belfast are to shut for good, displacing 1,000 workers, many of whom will never be able to find jobs again.

For Sir Keith Joseph and his friends, who proclaim that workers must accept lower wages and price themselves into jobs, there exists the theoretical difficulty that wages in Northern Ireland are 20% lower than in the UK as a whole. Yet the unemployment rate is consistently twice the national rate.

Strabane has the highest unemployment rate in the province. It also boasts the lowest wages. A recent report has shown that the average salary of those school-leavers who manage to find jobs in the Derry-Strabane area is 25.97.

Low wages do not create jobs. Rather unemployment is a club which is used to enforce poverty-level wages.

With prices on average some 4% higher than in Britain, it is not difficult to picture the extent of poverty in Northern Ireland. In 1976 38% of households lived below the poverty line. For the South East of England the equivalent figure is 13%. Even Scotland’s scandalous figure of 23% appears as nothing compared to the plight of Northern Ireland families.

If there was a part of the globe which cried out for a united working-class movement, that area must be Northern Ireland. It has been the social misery of poverty and unemployment which has underlain the sectarian violence of the past decade.

Today the opportunities for the building of a class movement to smash the sectarianism and end this poverty are greater than they have been for ten years.

On April 2nd of this year a successful half-day general strike was organised against the Tories. Catholics and protestants marched together in all areas. Outside Belfast’s City Hall 10,000 workers from every part of the city stood together to listen to the trade union leaders.

Protests grow

Everywhere the anger of working people at the Tory cuts is to be seen. Unemployment, wages, cuts in services – these are now the talking points in the work-places, and not so much the “troubles”. Last week 100 women from the protestant Shankill Road and other parts of north Belfast marched to the offices of the Education and Library Board, protesting on the issue of school dinners.

Overall, and particularly in the issue of unemployment, a mood for action is developing. A call for demonstrations against unemployment has already been raised by workers on a number of trades councils.

Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland labour movement is handicapped by the fact that it can only fight on the industrial plane. Politically, the trade unions are silent. Yet the need for a Labour Party to challenge the bigots who now dominate politics could not be greater.

Ian Paisley, Enoch Powell, John Hume and others are the most prominent political figures in Northern Ireland. All attain their seats on the basis of sectarian voting, and all have, therefore, a vested interest in the maintenance of the religious division among the workers.

The four major political parties, Official Unionist, Democratic Unionist, Social Democrat Labour Party and Alliance are all Tory parties under different names. Enoch Powell represents the views of the Official Unionists by repeatedly calling for more cuts. His colleague, William Ross, MP for Derry, responded to job losses in local factories by declaring this necessary to economic revival!

That such people are elected has very little to do with continued popular support. Rather, it is chiefly because of the lack of an alternative. Increasingly, however, the activists within the trade unions are coming to see the need for a political voice of their own.

Workers faced with redundancies in a number of factories have gone to MPs such as Paisley and Hume for support. They have been given sympathy, and on occasions public backing. But no action has been proposed, and these politicians have done nothing to save jobs.

The Grundig shop stewards met representatives of the nearby Lisburn Borough Council, and were offered condolences and nothing else.

The comment of one of the shop stewards, that the meeting was a “total waste of time“, sum up the conclusion which many workers are now beginning to draw.

Next May, local government elections will be held. Antrim Trades Council have decided to field at least one candidate. They have set up a body called the Antrim Labour League for the purpose. It is quite possible that other Trades Councils will do likewise.

Throughout the North, the Labour and Trade Union Group (L&TUG) have been developing their influence by campaigning for a trade-union based Labour Party. Even in Paisley’s backyard of Ballymena, the local L&TUG branch have managed to underline the potential support for a Labour Party by building a 40-strong branch of Young Socialists.

Talk by the Tories of a “political solution” in the form of some kind of new Assembly adds further urgency to the question of building a political voice for the unions.

As things stand, this latest “solution” would solve exactly nothing. Elections due to an Assembly would be dominated by the sectarian parties. The horrifying prospect has even been mooted that if his Democratic Unionist party were to emerge as the largest single party, Paisley might seek to become the leader of the parliament! This could give a boost to the bigots on both sides.

All this underlines the need for a united class alternative. A Labour Party would attract the working class support which today accounts for the voting successes of a whole array of bigots. At the moment, no such party exists.

That the SDLP is a middle-class catholic party has been re-affirmed by the defection from its ranks of people like Gerry Fitt, and Paddy Devlin, who have Labour connections to boast somewhere deep in their political past.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party no longer exists except as a lifeless rump. In 1977 it managed to win only one council seat in the whole province. Since then, it has declined even further.

With no Labour Party in existence the trade unions face the task of creating one. Great assistance in this can be given by the British Labour Party. It can supply political advice, can assist in pressing the unions in Britain to support the idea, and can give practical help in the form of resources and money.

However, the idea sometimes raised, that a new region of the British Labour Party should be set up in Northern Ireland, should be resisted. Such a step would be seen in Northern Ireland as the imposition of a party from above and outside. The danger would be that many activists would resent such a move and actively oppose it.

In any case the only people raising this call are the people who are or have been members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who helped destroy the NILP with their right-wing and sectarian policies. Now they have gone down on their knees begging the British Labour Party to come and rescue them.

It is the trade union activists with Northern Ireland who will have to form and build a new Labour Party. They can be given aid in this task, but no-one else can actually carry it out.

A rank-and-file conference of the NI trade unions, with representatives only from those political organisations who base themselves entirely on the labour movement should be called. This would work out a socialist programme and a democratic structure for a Labour Party.

Under present conditions such a party would quickly develop, fighting the twin enemies of poverty and sectarianism. It could challenge the sectarian parties on both sides, who up until now have simply fed each other. It would need to develop the closest links with the British Labour Party.

Above all, it would be a gigantic step towards the unity of the working class of Ireland, North and South. Through links with the Irish Labour Party, and by moving to the development of a single Labour Party for Ireland, it could help politically to reunite the workers of Belfast and Dublin for the first time since partition in 1921.

Only the working class of Northern Ireland can provide any answer to the situation. The Tories have nothing to offer. If they can only bring hardship to the workers of Liverpool and Birmingham, how can they be expected to solve the problems of workers in Belfast and Derry?

There are no grounds to justify a continued “bipartisan” approach between Labour and the Tories in Britain on this question.

Instead, the labour movement in Britain must campaign for a socialist solution to the Northern Ireland problem, and should give every possible assistance to those fighting for class unity and socialism with the Northern Ireland labour movement – and above all, to those are fighting for the building in Northern Ireland of a trade-union-based Labour Party.

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