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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland – Stop sectarian upsurge

Trade Unions Must Act

(May 1981)

From Militant [UK], Issue 550, 1 May 1981.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Unless a last minute compromise is found, it is virtually certain that hunger striker Bobby Sands will be dead by the time this goes to print.

After 58 days of fasting, Bobby Sands is reported to be only semi-lucid and partially deaf and blind. Last Saturday evening he almost died.

If Sands dies, responsibility will lie with the intransigence of the Tories, who for years have used the most brutal methods to try to break the H-Block prisoners’ protests.

In Britain, the H-Block issue has already been taken up by the labour movement. The Labour Party’s National Executive condemned the ill-treatment of prisoners, and has called for decent conditions for those in H-Blocks and Armagh, and for prisoners generally.

Before Christmas, Republican hunger-strikers gave up their protest on the basis of the authorities’ vague promises of improved conditions – promises which were not implemented, or implemented in an offensive and high-handed manner.

This has led to the second hunger-strike, and the dramatic escalation of sectarian tension in Northern Ireland. Yet if just two of the Labour Party’s demands – the right of all prisoners to wear their own clothes and the right of the prisoners to negotiate a choice of work, training and educational facilities were implemented – the issue could be resolved.

At the start of this hunger strike, the prisoners and their republican supporters concentrated on the sole demand of “political status” for all prisoners. They received little support, even in the main Catholic areas.

More recently, H-Block demonstrations have focused on the humanitarian aspect, which, as previously, has received a greater echo. Sands himself, in discussion with three Euro-MPs from the South, reportedly stressed that political status was not the central issue.

If the Labour Party’s position on clothes and work were implemented, there would be a solution. The British and Irish Labour movement, whether or not Sands dies, must immediately take up this question with direct pressure on the Tories to implement these demands and with meetings to explain the issues to labour’s ranks.

This would in no way imply support for the Provisional IRA, whose terrorist methods we implacably oppose, now would it give credence to the sectarian based H-Block committees. These bodies can only divide working people. Silence by the labour and trade union movement, however, on whether on H-Blocks or other forms of repression, can only benefit the sectarian organisations.

Until recently, there was little enthusiasm for the hunger strike, even in Catholic areas. But as its climax is reached, this has changed. Anger at the callous killings of two youths in Derry, run over by an army Land Rover has increased with last Sunday’s death of a 15-year-old, hit in the head with a plastic bullet. Another youth has just lost an eye, after being hit by one of these bullets.

Such atrocities have brought the crowds onto the streets. In Catholic areas all over the province there has been sporadic but intensive rioting for over a week. The H-Block parade in West Belfast on Sunday brought out over 15,000.

The conflict will escalate if Sands dies. Ominous noises, too, have come from some of the Protestant paramilitaries, with reports of gun and bomb-making activities by the Ulster Defence Regiment.

These events come when working class issues are to the fore in Northern Ireland. Strikes, occupations, anti-Tory demonstrations, and other activities by trade unions have united Catholic and Protestant workers.

A number of NI trades councils are preparing to challenge Tories and bigots in local elections (on 20 May). Through the recent rioting of the catholic youth there has been an under-current of class anger at poverty and unemployment.

But this class unity and class anger could be temporary engulfed by a sectarian onslaught. Behind Sands there are three others on hunger strike, with Francis Hughes only a couple of weeks from death. If Sands dies, a second Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election with a prisoner standing could pose grave dangers.

All this should be a cue for the labour movement to act.

The trade unions alone have the capacity to act to protect working-class people, Catholic and Protestant, from sectarian intimidation and attacks.

A decade of sectarianism and of the Provisional IRA’s campaign have shown that these are no way out. The only answer is a political and industrial mobilisation of the workers through the unions and through a Labour Party – which must immediately be built.

The anger of the youth, is entirely understandable given the poverty and repression. But only the labour movement can give that anger the expression required – a class expression which will challenge sectarianism, poverty and repression with class unity and socialist solutions.

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Last updated: 5 June 2015