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Peter Hadden

Sectarian tension mounts in Northern Ireland

(July 1987)

From Militant [UK], 10 July 1987.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

With the Loyalist marches on the way there has been a stepping up of sectarian incidents in Northern Ireland. Last weekend Loyalist marchers clashed with police in Portadown after their parade was rerouted away from a Catholic area.

Workers in the Gallagher’s factory in Ballymena and Shorts Brothers, East Belfast plant have gone on strike after management removed Loyalist flags from the shop floor. Numerous sectarian petrol bombings, beatings and riots have gone unreported in the press.

Most ominously the sectarian killer gangs have returned to the streets. In the last ten days three Catholic workers, one a hospital chef and active NUPE member, have been gunned down by Loyalist assassins in Belfast. For their part the Provos have stepped up their campaign against the off-duty RUC and UDR men. Whether intended or not, these killings could not be better designed to provoke a Loyalist backlash, Worst of all was the attempt by dissident INLA members to assassinate former Unionist MP Jim Nicholson. Fortunately this attack failed as a result would most likely have been the death of even more innocent Catholics killed in reprisal.

Nevertheless, the sectarian mood is still not as intense as last year. In Shorts some workers went out on strike over the purely sectarian issue of flags, but many more came out through intimidation, and because of the arrogant and high handed manner with which the management dealt with the issue, If the anger of Protestants has subsided somewhat, it is not because they have come to terms with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but because this agreement has not been implemented. While upholding the agreement in words, in practice the British government has been making concessions to the Unionists in a bid to open lip talks between the major parties.

For Catholics the agreement has not resulted in concessions, but more repression as one incident which took place last weekend indicates.

The unions must mount an effective campaign to unite workers

A Catholic farmer, Michael Ward, and his 21 year old house-keeper were driving near his County Tyrone farm early on Sunday afternoon. They were halted by two cars, one in front and one behind. Fearing a sectarian ambush he managed to drive around the front car but his car was sprayed with gunfire in the process. A third car tried to cut him off but he managed to escape.

He phoned the police who refused to come to his house until about five hours later. Subsequently the police have admitted that it was they who intercepted and opened fire on the car.

There is no difference between this and previous shoot to kill undercover operations which, according to the SDLP, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to put paid to – except that Michael Ward has lived to tell the tale.

With Loyalist marches and more acts of deliberate provocation by the paramilitaries, there is a danger that the situation can worsen over the coming weeks. However, the vast majority of workers, Catholic and Protestant, would be completely opposed to such a development.

Recently there have been a number of significant strikes involving Catholic and Protestant workers. The Abbey meat plant near Belfast was briefly occupied by the work force as part of an on-going strike. Another meat plant, Ulster Meats in Craigavon has been out. Shipyard workers have been on strike over pay.

Civil servants have been solid in support of their pay campaign. Now that the right wing leadership of NIPSA, the main civil service union in Northern Ireland, have followed the SCPS and surrendered. The NIPSA Broad Left have taken the issue up and are organising a mass protest lobby of the union’s Belfast headquarters.

It is time the union leadership harnessed this growing class anger and mounted an effective campaign to unite workers. A motion from the CPSA passed at last week’s Irish Congress of Trade Unions conference, stated that “Only the trade union and labour movement can defeat the bigots on both sides and mobilise workers around their common interests of jobs, living standards, health service, housing education and an end to sectarianism”.

Just as the sectarian organisation are now going on the offensive, so the trade union leaders must put the sentiments of this motion into effect. A rank and file conference of the movement should be called to discuss action to defeat sectarianism, oppose repression and unite workers industrially and politically against the policies of the bigots.

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