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Peter Hadden

One year of the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Anglo-Irish failure – workers’ pay the price

(November 1986)

From Militant Irish Monthly, November 1986.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Last November the Anglo Irish Agreement was heralded with fanfares by both the British and Irish governments. It was proclaimed as a formula which would, at last, lead to a solution to the problems of the North. This chorus of acclaim was not confined to the bourgeois and right wing. It was echoed by the leaders of all the main working class parties.

According to Neil Kinnock: “Today’s agreement is a step in the long road towards ending the violence, waste and fear which have plagued the people of Northern Ireland for so long.” (Press release 15/11/85)

His Southern Irish counterpart, Dick Spring wrote in a Party newsletter “We hope that the operation of the Agreement whatever difficulties there may be in the early stages, will gradually lead to a phasing out of violence, to peace and stability in all Ireland, and to even better relations between Britain and Ireland.”

In a similar vein the two TDs of the Workers Party cast their Dail votes for the Accord. An article in their newspaper The Northern People (22/11/85) stated: “As a party we demand peace and we believe that the majority on this island demand peace. That is what the Anglo-Irish Agreement must deliver in the first instance.”

Reality has been very different. The Agreement has augured, not peace, but twelve months of escalating sectarian violence. Hundreds of families have been petrol bombed or otherwise intimidated from their homes. Sectarian street fighting has been widespread. Isolated Catholic communities have been invaded and in some cases ransacked.

Sectarian assassinations

In August, for, example, the Catholic village of Swatragh in County Derry was taken over by several hundred loyalists, some of them armed.

Worst of all there has been a new wave of sectarian assassinations. Among the victims was Militant supporter Colum McCallan who was killed by a loyalist murder gang in July.

It has been the Catholic working class which has borne the brunt of this sectarian violence. And for what? Twelve months of Anglo-Irish Ministerial meetings have produced absolutely nothing. Even the purely cosmetic concessions which had been strongly hinted at, have failed to materialise. Those things which are different from twelve months ago have changed for the worse, not the better. Sectarianism has worsened. So also state repression has been increased. In border areas like Newry army and police activity have been intensified. Catholic workers in Strabane are now enduring what amounts to virtual martial law. Catholic youth in the town have their every movement restricted and must endure threats, harassment and beatings.

In Derry, in a throwback to the blunt tactics of mass repression of the early 1970s, there have been a reported 140 raids on Catholic homes in the last few weeks alone. So much for the claim of the SDLP of better things to come by virtue of the Anglo-Irish deal! So much for the recent statement of Seamus Mallon that thanks to the Agreement Catholics now feel “less isolated”!

Nor has the sectarian fury all been directed one way. There have been retaliatory attacks on Protestant homes and Protestants have been threatened at work. There have also been a number of sectarian killings of Protestants, as for example, the murder by the Provisionals of a young electrician Mervyn Bell, in Derry.

From the point of view of the British ruling class and of the Southern bourgeois the accord has been a miserable failure. Its anniversary will not point to either its strength or its durability. Instead it will be a demonstration of the strength of opposition and to its complete unworkability.

Almost certainly it will be the signal for a new and potentially even more dangerous wave of sectarian violence. And, as always, it will be the working class, both Catholic and Protestant, who are left to pay the price for this failure.

Unlike the right-wing leaders of the labour movement, Militant, even before the agreement was signed, explained that it was doomed from the first moment to fail. Events have confirmed our prognosis and reaffirmed what we have long explained; that it is not possible to solve the problems of the North on the basis of capitalism.

Underlying the violence are the real and worsening problems of de-industrialisation and poverty. Industrial output in 1985 was 21%, below that of 1973. Over this period manufacturing employment fell by a colossal 43%. Unemployment has risen to an official figure of 23%, which is an underestimate of the true situation. The levels of poverty which exist can be surmised from the fact that the average weekly income per household is 20.6% below the UK average.

Living standards, such as they are, are maintained by huge levels of public spending. State expenditure now accounts for ¾ of GDP as compared to 45% for Britain as a whole. This makes the economy totally unviable. Each year the books are balanced only because of hand-outs from the British exchequer. Last year this subvention reached 1.400 million or 1/3 of the budget of the state.


For the working class capitalism offers only a vista of unrelenting gloom. It is the inability of the system to develop production and benefit the working class with rising living standards and a secure future, which makes impossible any capitalist solution to the national problem.

The de-industrialisation of the North means that the state cannot be- made attractive to its Catholic minority and therefore excludes the possibility of a lasting settlement being reached within the boundaries of this artificial entity. On the other hand the reunification of Ireland on a capitalist basis is an even more unrealistic and utopian pipe-dream.

Life might be harsh in the North but the million Protestants there see not only the same but worse in the present Southern state. They see a debt ridden economy which is entirely subservient to the interests of foreign multinationals. They see no National Health Services and lower levels of state services all round. They see endemic poverty with now 37% of the population dependent on welfare.

The image of a clerical state dominated by the Catholic Church has been reinforced (erroneously) by the result of the divorce referendum. Protestant fears would hardly have been lessened by the subsequent assurance of Charles Haughey that the referendum result would not hinder reunification since different laws on such questions could be applied in different parts of a united Ireland!

There is nothing which can come from the Southern establishment which can answer the fears of Protestants that reunification would leave them worse off. So they will never voluntarily accede to the call for a capitalist united Ireland. Attempts to lead them there by coercion – as is openly advocated in right wing republican circles -would backfire. There would be armed Protestant resistance, and a civil war of which the outcome is not in doubt. The Protestants would not be overrun but, given existing weaponry and the fact that they would be fighting for survival, they would be victorious.

Civil war would be a crushing defeat for the working class of all Ireland. It would end up with repartition, with the establishment of a slightly truncated, wholly Protestant statelet in the North and the entrenchment of the division of the country.

Those who in the past have derided this scenario and pooh-poohed the idea of a Protestant backlash have had their answer over the last twelve months.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was not devised as a step to a united Ireland. It is true that British imperialism would prefer to scrap the border but they have long been forced to accept the impossibility of this. The Southern ruling class long ago relinquished the aspiration to unite the country. They fear and in practice would seek to avoid reunification.

In reality the Hillsborough accord was intended as a tame and purely cosmetic exercise primarily aimed at boosting the fortunes of the SDLP by easing the alienation felt by Northern Catholics.


Apart from a few minor concessions the only real substance of the agreement was to be increased North-South co-operation on repression. Yet because it appeared to be more than this, because it seemed to affect the constitutional status of the North, it provoked a furious reaction from the mass of the Protestant population.

One week after the accord was signed over 200,000 demonstrated against it outside Belfast City Hall. Since then the depth of Protestant opposition has been repeatedly shown – in the Westminster bye-elections early this year, in the one-day stoppage on March 3rd and in the closing down of councils.

Thatcher and FitzGerald both were completely taken aback by the anger generated. In their ignorance they have displayed all the insensitivity of the present day bourgeois on the national question. Thatcher expected the loyalist opposition to run out of steam as a growing section of Protestants came to accept the pact.

Believing the Paisley and the DUP hardliners would be isolated she hoped that a more moderate brand of unionism would prove ascendant in the Official Unionist Party paving the way for a deal on devolution and power sharing.

Precisely the opposite has been the case. It has been the moderates who have been isolated, their most recent humiliation being the expulsion from their party of official Unionist councillors who broke the ban on council business. If Paisley has lost ground it has not been to the moderates but to the most intransigent elements within his own party.

The hardening of attitudes among Protestants is not only reflected in the political parties but more ominously in the growth of the loyalist paramilitaries. The UDA and UVF, for long semi-moribund organisations, have both been able to pick up a layer of new recruits from among the lumpenised section of the Protestant population. A new force, the Ulster Clubs, has grown rapidly to a membership of 10,000 mainly based in the rural areas and smaller towns and villages.

All this represents a serious threat to the working class, Catholic and Protestant. During the last year there has been no shortage of war mongering statements from Unionist politicians of all shades. Peter Robinson has recently defended the use of violence. Last June Ian Paisley went further. He said “This is a war and people will be hurt. People have already been hurt and sacrifices will have to be made.”

For Paisley this may or may not be empty phrase-mongering. However there are now a sizeable number of people prepared, if they feel necessary to take such words literally. Inherent in the campaigns of the paramilitaries, the Ulster Clubs and Robinson and his DUP co-thinkers, is civil war and UDI.

The warning signs are there in the organised and systematic attacks in Catholic homes and areas. Peter Robinson has openly advocated UDI as a last option. So have the VOA among others. Workers should have no illusions as to what UDI would mean. The Catholic population would no more accept rule by Robinson or those like him, than would the Protestants accept that they should be governed by the army council of the IRA. UDI would precipitate civil war, the expulsion of Catholics and repartition.

For working class Protestants the new state would be no promised land flowing with milk and honey. It would be a right-wing military regime with democratic rights crushed which could exist only on the basis of the general impoverishment of the population. Peter Robinson has shrugged his shoulders and accepted that the shipyard would not survive.

Alan Wright, leader of the Ulster Clubs, is nothing if not candid about life would be like: “The economic structure would very possibly collapse and there would be many years of despair but we’ll choose that before we choose the road to Dublin and the majority of the community will choose that.” (Irish Times, 14/4/86)

That such people have been given a certain base of support well underlines the stupidity and near-sightedness of the British ruling class in devising the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the first place.

By trying to stabilise the North they have managed to destabilise it. Attempting to limit sectarianism they have injected the province with a massive dose of sectarian poison.

The existence of the Anglo-Irish Agreement has posed civil war as one possible outcome. Yet no thanks to the Alan Wrights, the Robinsons, the UDA, the UVF, or for that matter to the Provos, the sectarian reaction has so far stopped far short of all out civil war.

This has been for two reasons firstly because the British ruling class have backed away every time a decisive confrontation with the loyalists has seemed to threaten. So they capitulated on the rerouting of loyalist parades through Catholic areas of Portadown in July. Secondly it has been because of the anti-sectarian mood of the majority of the working class.

While maintaining the structure of the Anglo-Irish Agreement the British government have in practice abandoned any attempt to implement any measures through it. So the much vaunted “package of measures” which it was hinted would coincide with the Agreement’s anniversary has failed to materialise.

Since nothing tangible has emerged from the Ministerial summits the opposition of the Protestant population has remained intense but below boiling point. Among the working class there is opposition to the agreement but in general also opposition to the sectarian killings, the petrol bombings and the intimidation.


The basic anti-sectarian mood of both sections of the working class has acted as a brake on the activities of the bigots. In early August the Provos issued a “final warning” to those whose work in any way assisted the security forces. This included civil servants, post office engineers, cleaners, caterers and many more. To the unions they gave this advice: “Trade unions should recognise the dangers that their members face by being employed in military installations and should advise their members to seek alternative sites of employment. (Republican News, 7/9/86)

What the one Protestant worker in ten, plus the substantial number of Catholics, who work in security-related jobs should do to find jobs the Provos statement made no mention. This threat was followed by an even more bloodcurdling statement from the UFF which declared all Catholics working or living in Protestant areas to be targets.

In neither case were these idle threats. Many workers were threatened. A number of assassinations were carried out – Mervyn Bell, a Protestant electrician, shot by the Provos for the crime of working on a police station. Paddy McAllister, a Catholic murdered by the UFF for the crime of driving a black taxi in West Belfast.

On August 20th Lisburn DHSS office received a phone call threatening its Catholic staff. The workers held a union meeting and went on strike. They appealed for support from their colleagues in other DHSS offices and were overwhelmed by the response. Over the next two days 4,000 staff, Catholic and Protestant, took strike action. This action was not unique. Firemen in Newry responded to a threat by striking. Following the killing of Mervyn Bell the predominantly Catholic workforce of the Council yard where his father worked came out on strike in protest.

These united class protests forced the paramilitaries to partially hold their hand. They also had the effect of shaking the trade union leadership out of its lethargic inactivity. Among the chorus of response from all quarters which greeted the Anglo-Irish Agreement the attitude of the trade union leaders was conspicuous only by its absence. On 12th November a small statement from the ICTU appeared. It said simply that the unions had no comment to make. This position was challenged at the time by the Labour and Trade Union Group, reflecting the views of Militant, We warned that the ICTU’s silence would appease no-one but would be taken by the enemies of the trade union movement as a demonstration of weakness and would encourage them in their attempts to destroy trade union unity. Sadly these warnings have proved correct. A campaign has been launched by loyalists to dismantle the existing union structures and set up an Ulster TUC, a recipe for a sectarian division of the workforce.

While the ICTU leaders covered their ears and averted their eyes, the Labour and Trade Union Group issued a clear call for action. As it is easy to be wise after the event it is worth quoting at length what the Labour Group said last November:

“This accord is a clear expression of the inability of the Dublin and Westminster Tories to come up with a solution to the problems of the North. Because it has in- creased fears and suspicions without offering a solution its overall net effect will be to heighten sectarianism. The trade unions must reject the Tory proposals and put forward a socialist alternative to the national problem.”

This statement, published on 20/11/85, went on to urge the NIC/ICTU to call a “rank and file delegate conference of the entire trade union movement to discuss such an alternative. Such a Conference could be the launching pad for a TU campaign to counter the bigots on both sides and mobilise workers around their common interests and to put an end to sectarianism.”

At the time this call fell upon deaf ears as far as the trade union leaders were concerned. They remained mute and delayed for ten months-with disastrous consequences.

However, by their actions, the DHSS workers, Newry firemen and others have spoken out in favour of the L&TUC call. Under this pressure the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU have been compelled to launch a campaign. A special conference of community groups and union delegations has been called.

While a step forward this campaign falls far short of what is required. It lacks democracy. The trade union rank and file have not been involved. Above all it attempts to counter sectarianism without even discussing the underlying cause of the violence, particularly the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

There may have been a relative downturn in the violence after August. This should give no grounds for complacency. True, the Agreement itself is doomed. It may simply fall to pieces, through its lack of results: An election and Fianna Fail victory in the South, which are likely within a few months, would quickly provide both governments with an opportunity to scrap the deal. On some issue they would engineer a disagreement and the Anglo-Irish Agreement would become the Anglo-Irish Disagreement.

If, on the other hand, the British ruling class were to try to maintain the Agreement and started at some stage to implement it as originally promised, they would be met with a furious reaction. Faced with the prospect of pogroms, even civil war, of the disintegration of the UDR and RUC, they would have no choice but to back down, and consign the Agreement to history.

The lessons

Whatever happens, a further and dangerous increase in sectarianism is the most likely short term prospect. For this reason the lessons of the past twelve months must be learnt and applied to the new ICTU anti-sectarian campaign.

First of all recent events have made clear that no force can protect workers other than the force of the working class united and organised to do so. The DHSS and other strikes were a statement by those workers that they could rely on no-one but themselves. Similarly the formation of local watch committees as has happened in some areas, most notably in the beleaguered Catholic enclave Ligoniel in North Belfast, shows that these workers understand that they alone can defend their areas. The trade unions in conjunction with such genuine local defence groups must be prepared to organise the working class to defend itself from the bigots.

Defensive action alone is not enough. On its own it always permits the enemies of the labour movement to regain the initiative. The second lesson of the last year is the need for an offensive campaign to unite workers, for jobs, houses, decent services etc. By its nature this must be a political campaign which requires the building of a political expression of the unions, a mass Labour Party. Thirdly it is now clear that the labour movement will ignore the national question at its peril. Every capitalist “solution” to the national problem is a different road to ruin. Only the working class, by uniting all workers in the struggle for socialism, North, South and in Britain, can solve the problem of the border. Opposing the Anglo-Irish Agreement the labour movement must counter-pose the slogan of class unity for a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

The trade unions have the power and the courageous stance of the DHSS and other workers have provided the opportunity, to over-come the sectarianism generated by the Anglo-Irish deal and decisively transform the situation. They do not, though, have unlimited time and a continued failure by the union leaders to offer a decisive class alternative, could lead to even worse setbacks than suffered last year.

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