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Peter Hadden & Bill Webster

1976 – Workers fight sectarian attacks

Better Life For All Campaign

(March 1986)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 139, March 1986.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Bill Webster and Peter Hadden (ex-members Campaign Council)

Generally speaking among political commentators on Northern Ireland the loudest voices belong to those who deny that the working class can overcome sectarian divisions. Such sceptics choose to ignore the true history of the working class movement.

And since writing on the recent troubles has been dominated by such people it is no wonder that there has been no commemoration by press or other media of a vital episode in the history of the labour movement which took place ten years ago.

At the beginning of 1976 the Trade Union Better Life For All Campaign was launched. For a brief moment the trade union movement raised the united voice of Catholic and Protestant workers against sectarianism and against poverty. The potential for class unity was vividly and for all time demonstrated.

The Better life For All Campaign developed against a back-ground of vicious sectarian violence. 1975 was the year of the Miami Showband killings, the Shankill Butchers, of inter-paramilitary feuding between the UDA and UVF and between republican groups. It was clear that the so-called security forces could not defend workers. Their only answer was more repression.

With the paramilitaries apparently determined to provoke civil war a mood of outrage at the seemingly endless litany of atrocities began to develop among the working class, both Catholic and Protestant. Towards the end of the year there were signs that this anger was about to spill over. The genuine revulsion of tens of thousands at the foul deeds being perpetrated by gangs of murderers began to overcome their fear of the paramilitaries.

Sectarian attack

When in September 1975 an attempt was made to shoot a Catholic worker employed at the Lagan Meat Plant in Belfast, the plant’s 400 workers went on strike. Their demand was an assurance from all the paramilitaries that they would not be subject to further attacks, all but the UVF gave the commitment.

Within the trade unions the activists were beginning to realise that something must be done. Belfast Trades Council on September 4th demanded that the NIC-ICTU “convene a Conference of rank and file trade unionists to discuss ways and means of protecting workers from sectarian attack”. The Labour and Trade Union Group in a press statement supported the Trades Council declaring “only the trade union movement has the capacity to stay the hands of the assassins. Only the working people banded together by their class organisations can protect the lives of workers.”

In Derry the Labour and Trade Union Party took the initiative visiting factories with leaflets. Largely as a result the Derry Trades Council in October unanimously backed the stance of Belfast Trades Council. It was in Derry that the Better Life For All Campaign was to have its real beginnings, and as was to be the case throughout, the initiative came in the form of a spontaneous movement from below.

When, at the end of 1975, two Protestant businessmen were shot dead in a cafe in Derry, the response of the working class was to say enough is enough. Under pressure from workers throughout the city the Derry Trades Council called a strike and demonstration.

Over 5,000 workers responded. 1976 opened in a furore of bloodshed. In five days 17 workers. 6 Catholics and 11 Protestants were killed in South Armagh. In Newry the Trades Council reacted. On 7th January they organised a work stoppage and demonstration. Factories, offices, shops and pubs all closed down. Speaking to a rally of thousands the Chairman of the Trades Council demanded that “the sectarian gunmen get off the backs of the workers”.

The Council attacked the politicians also: “they have no solution to the problems of workers”. In the Portadown-Lurgan area, where no Trades Council existed, groups of shop stewards met and took the initiative. A strike and demonstration was called. 6,000–7,000 workers responded. At this stage the mood across the North was for action. Workers sensed that at last something could be done. Under the pressure building up from below the leadership moved. On January 24th the NIC-ICTU held a rally in Belfast at which the Better Life For All Campaign was launched. A Peoples’ Declaration containing six demands was issued. First was a call for an end to violence, sectarianism, intimidation and discrimination. Then other class issues were raised – jobs, houses, education, social services and political freedom. This Declaration was issued as a petition which was to gain almost 200,000 signatures.

Union inaction

This initiative represented an enormous step forward. Had it been carried through the entire situation in the North could have been transformed. However it was clear from the very start that the NIC-ICTU leaders had moved only under pressure and then reluctantly. Their every action during the course of the campaign was marked by timidity and indecision. Ultimately this was to result in the campaign running out of steam.

The first act of the campaign demonstrated the timidity at the top but also the strength of feeling amongst the mass of the working class. There was the calling of 2 minutes silence at 11.00 on January 27th. Thousands gathered at Belfast City Hall for the event. Buses stopped.

In factories workers downed tools. For a brief moment the latent power of the working class was shown. Had there existed a leadership with an ounce of the determination shown by the Trades Councils in Derry, Newry and by the embryonic Trades Council in Craigavon, they would have called on workers to stop work not for two minutes but for a day or half-a-day. This would have brought the entire trade union movement to its feet.

From the rank and file of this movement, particularly from the Labour and Trade Union Group and supporters of this newspaper, the call for a province wide general strike continued to be raised. On the campaign council which had been appointed by NIC-ICTU to run the campaign Militant supporters Bill Webster and Peter Hadden argued the case for such action.

This did not get a majority. Instead this committee decided to call an indoor rally on a Saturday with admission by invitation only. Even the so-called left leaders, people like the late Jimmy Graham of the AUEW and Communist Party, argued that to go any further would be beyond the means of the unions.

While the leadership displayed such over caution the mood of the rank and me was still for action. When on February 21st the long awaited rally was eventually held in Belfast’s Grosvenor Hall, the mood of the 1,000 or so trade union activists was critical. When Labour and Trade Union Group members and Militant supporters spoke they got an enthusiastic response.

Defence of workers

The call for action to defend workers from sectarian attack was warmly received. Above all the call for political action by the unions through the building of a Labour Party was applauded by most of those present.

In the short space of a few weeks of activity the advanced sections of the working class had already drawn important lessons. It was no accident that following the Grosvenor Hall rally the NIC-ICTU tops vehemently resisted pressure for further action. In truth the campaign was bureaucratically smothered from this point.

The campaign council continued to work – but merely postponed mass action. Meanwhile workers continued to act against sectarianism. In May milk workers in Belfast protested against the murder of a Catholic colleague. Then in June 2,000 workers from the Goodyear plant in Lurgan walked out and demonstrated after a worker was murdered in the factory car park.

Overall the campaign showed that the working class had the strength and were prepared to deal with sectarianism. For a brief moment they forced the trade union leadership to act. But ultimately these leaders were able to sap the momentum of the campaign.

New campaign

In 1976, when the campaign began, unemployment was 11.1%. Now ten years, later it is twice that. Then workers faced the danger of sectarianism. Now the reaction to the Anglo-Irish deal threatens potentially even worse sectarianism. Yet it has not only been the capitalist media which has failed to notice that this is the tenth anniversary of the Better Life For All Campaign. From NIC-ICTU there has not been any hint that the events of ten years ago should be commemorated. Today rank and file activists should demand that this is corrected, and in the best possible way, by the launching of a more thorough going campaign to confront the problems as they manifest themselves today.

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Last updated: 26 April 2015