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Peter Hadden

Northern workers need a party of Labour

(April 1982)

From Militant Irish Monthly, April 1982.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Support is growing for the campaign, spearheaded by the Labour and Trade Union Group, for a Conference of Labour in Northern Ireland and the building of a trade union based Labour Party. The latest addition to the list of organisations who now back this call is the National Union of Mineworkers.

At the Annual Conference of the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU in April, delegates will have the opportunity to take an historic step towards the building of a political voice for the working class. Two trades councils, Derry and Ballymena, have submitted motions which call for a Conference of Labour. Delegates should resist any attempts to remove these motions from the agenda.

After years of silence on this question it is now time that the issue was debated openly within this top body of the Northern Ireland trade union movement. There may be an attempt to prevent discussion using a constitutional pretext. But the call for a Labour Party has been raised because this is now an urgent necessity for the working class movement. The necessity will remain and the demand will continue to be raised no matter what constitutional arguments the ICTU leaders may employ.

Workers Unity

Any attempt to block discussion on this question will only confirm that those who oppose the development of a political voice for the trade unions have no arguments in their favour. Only those who realise they stand on weak ground attempt to prevent democratic discussion.

In reality the case for the building of a mass trade union based Labour Party in Northern Ireland is unanswerable. Tory attacks, coming on top of the economic collapse of capitalism in the North are driving down the living standards of Catholic and Protestant workers. Yet the workers who suffer most from Tory policies have only local Tories and sectarians to misrepresent them politically.

Because there is no Labour Party, the working class have no political vehicle to use to fight back. Above all, the youth, many of whom do not have the option to join a trade union, have no class organisation to which to turn. In this there are grave dangers, as the anger of young people will find some outlet and if this is not provided by the labour movement it can be provided by sectarian and paramilitary groups.

A Labour Party with an active youth section, by fighting around socialist demands, could become an alternative for thousands and tens of thousands of workers and youth.


Among those who argue that a Labour Party should be built there used to be different arguments as to how this could be done. Now there can only be one argument. The call by the Labour and Trade Union Group for a conference of trade unions, trades councils and labour groupings entirely based in the trade union movement now can be clearly seen to be the only option. A Labour Party must firstly be based upon the active participation of the trade union movement and secondly must be formed by local activists who will build it.

Thus the demand for a Conference of Labour represents the way forward. This is why this call has and is receiving such wide backing within the labour movement both in Britain and Ireland. In Britain the issue is now under consideration by all the major trade unions.

Many local branches have sent messages of support to the Labour and Trade Union Group and stated that they will be submitting motions on the subject to their union conferences.

Apart from the Miners, the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union have given their backing. Executive members of the FBU, SOGAT, the Boilermakers, NUPE and the Bakers Union have given individual support and intend pushing the question on these bodies.

In addition, the 1981 British Labour Party Conference, on the vote of almost every trade union delegation, overwhelmingly endorsed the call for a Conference of Labour to build a Labour Party. Tony Benn, at the historic public meeting at which he spoke in Dublin, stressed a number of times his support for this call. At a private meeting with a delegation from the Labour and Trade Union Group he assured them of his personal backing for this demand.

In Ireland also there is a swelling ground swell of support. The Irish Labour Party, also by Conference decision, has come out for a Conference of Labour and a Labour Party in the North. Derry, Ballymena and Meath Trades Councils are in support. In Derry alone there are now a whole number of individual union branches, from public sector unions like NIPSA to the AUEW, who are backing this call.

In Belfast also this is now the policy of many union branches. In fact there is now hardly a single significant trade union forum held in the North where the demand for political representation is not raised at least by a section of those present.


The British Labour Party delegation to the North reported: “On the most recent visits to Northern Ireland in June 1980 and earlier this year, it (the need for a Labour Party – Ed.) was regarded by trade unionists as the single most important issue, next to unemployment”. (Labour Party Northern Ireland Study Group Report, 1981)

With such growing support it is now clear that the last line of resistance to the building of a Labour Party is the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU itself. Delegates to the NIC Conference have the opportunity to set aside this last obstacle by debating and endorsing the Derry and Ballymena motions.

But whatever the outcome of the Conference the message is now clear – the case for a Labour Party is unanswerable and the rising tide of support for this call is unstoppable.

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Last updated: 16 December 2014