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Peter Hadden

Workers’ Unity against THE REAL ENEMY

(15 May 1981)

From Militant [UK], No. 552, 15 May 1981.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Since the death of Bobby Sands there has been sporadic rioting, much of it unreported, in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. There have also been numerous shooting incidents, again largely unreported in West Belfast.

With the possibility of a second hunger-striker, Francis Hughes, dying shortly, there is a danger of serious escalation of violence. According to Hughes’ family he is extremely weak and has lost his eyesight.

Two other hunger-strikers, both now approaching their 50th day without food, will soon be critical. A fourth prisoner has just joined them.

Yet the Tories have refused to come up with even a hint of concessions to prevent more deaths. Their obstinacy caused the needless death of Bobby Sands, and they will bear the main responsibility for what may happen in Northern Ireland.

It would require only a limited change in the prison regime in the H-Blocks to settle the hunger strike. In particular, concessions on clothing and work could be introduced for prisoners in H-Block and Armagh and all prisoners in Northern Ireland. They would not amount to special or political category status, but would nevertheless meet the prisoners’ main demands.

Sands’ funeral drew an enormous crowd of between 70,000 and 100,000 people, including those lining the route. This huge attendance does not reflect a resurgence in support for the Provisionals, but a genuine sympathy for the plight of the prisoners and total opposition to the Tories intransigence. One Derry worker summed up the mood in Catholic areas as “anti-Provo, anti-IRSP (Irish Republican Socialist Party), pro-Bobby Sands”.

When support for the hunger-strike was closely tied to the Provisionals, it drew little or no response. The demand for political status, as raised by them, did not gain a mass echo even in the Catholic areas. The present mass support for the prisoners is mainly a call for a change in prison conditions.

Should the Provisionals or the INLA choose this issue for a justification of a stepping up of their military campaign, they will only serve to dampen popular support for the hunger strikers in Ireland and internationally.

The methods of individual terrorism adopted by the Provos have failed to achieve a single one of the stated aims of that organisation. Instead they have helped increase sectarianism in Northern Ireland, they have weakened the labour movement, and have given the excuse to the State to introduce repressive legislation. Should these futile tactics now be re-employed on behalf of the prisoners, it will be the hunger-strikers and the people in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland who will be the first to suffer.

The hunger-strikers also exposed the weakness of the sectarian campaign of the H-Block Support Committee. Rather than address their appeal to the working class and its organisations, these bodies have appealed solely to the “nationalist” groups, including the most right-wing and reactionary politicians.

Last weekend they invited all political organisations in Ireland which (in the words of former socialist Bernadette McAliskey) were “anti-imperialist” to a conference to discuss the H-Blocks. These parties include the right-wing nationalist Irish Independence Party, the SDLP, and even the Irish Tory Party, Fianna Fail, now in government in the South.

Again it has been the prisoners who have paid the price for this sectarian campaign. The H-Block Committees have repelled support. They proved incapable of mobilising a movement which could win concessions.

Only the labour movement, drawing together Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland, is fully capable of resisting repression. This is the lesson of the hunger strike.

The labour movement cannot afford to remain silent. The repression used today against Republicans in Northern Ireland can be used against the Labour movement in Britain and Ireland in the future.

It is this which makes doubly scandalous the bipartisan approach adopted by leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party in Britain. Worst of all has been the visit of Don Concannon to the dying Bobby Sands, solely to convey the message that he (Concannon) backed the Tories.

Already strong opposition Concannon’s stand has been registered within the Labour Party. Tony Saunois, Labour Party Young Socialists representative on the National Executive Committee, has tabled a motion condemning the Tory government’s stand and re-iterating the policy supported by the National Executive which is that basic concessions should be given to all prisoners to wear their own clothes and negotiate and choice of work, training and education. It is up to party activists to voice their support for Tony Saunois’ resolution and ensure that the Parliamentary leaders of the Party no longer back the Tories.

The issue should also be raised in a similar fashion within the trade unions in Britain and Ireland. Already the Derry Trades Council has taken a class stand on the question. At last week’s meeting of Belfast Trades Council it was agreed that a statement should be issued calling for prison reforms. A special meeting of the Executive of the Council has been convened to discuss the matter further.

While not backing the demand for political status as it has been raised, by the Provos, the labour movement cannot ignore the background to the H-Block crisis. These prisoners have mainly been convicted in non-jury courts under special legislation. Many have been convicted solely on the basis of confessions given after interrogation in police detention centres.

Amnesty International and even the government’s own Bennet Report have exposed the horrific techniques which were employed to force the signing of confessions.

The labour movement must immediately set up an inquiry into the whole system of repression in Northern Ireland. This could highlight the use of repressive legislation, the techniques of the army and police, and also demonstrate the threat these pose to the working class organisations in the future.

Part of such an inquiry should be a review of the cases of all who have been convicted on offenses arising from the Northern Ireland troubles. This review would be able to establish who has been imprisoned on the basis of frame-up or torture and who in the eyes of the labour movement is a political prisoner and on whose behalf it would fight. The movement would exclude from this category those conscious sectarians, who, by committing sectarian atrocities, have sought to divide the working class of Northern Ireland.

Were the labour movement to take up the question of H-Blocks in such a non-sectarian, class manner, entirely independent of the H-Block Committee and of the Provos, they could get a response from both Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland. This would be a major factor in forcing the Tories to act.

There is no desire among either Protestant or Catholic workers for a return to the nightmare of the early 1970s, of car bombs, pub bombs and nightly tit-for-tat assassinations. Despite the tensions surrounding the hunger strikes, there has been no mass turn by working class people or by the youth back to any of the para-militaries, Loyalist or Republican.

But there are no grounds for complacency. Further H-Block deaths could spark off a fresh wave of violence and sectarian killings. The labour movement must act now, to draw Catholic and Protestant workers together against the economic and all other forms of repression being meted out by the Tories.

Above all, the building of a political arm of the trade unions in Northern Ireland is now a matter of urgency. Only through such a political vehicle can the energies and frustrations of the youth in particular be turned away from the dead end of para-militarism, sectarianism and street violence, and channelled into united class activity against the Tories and their system.

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