From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 161N, April 1988.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
This article explains how the mass movement of Protestant and Catholic workers in 1975–76, in strikes and demonstrations drove the sectarian killers back. Today similar action is required to deal with the bigots.
ON MARCH 14th, tens of thousands of workers throughout Northern Ireland struck in defence of the NHS. Marches from hospitals in north, south and west Belfast converged on the city centre. This 10,000 crowd was swelled by 2,000 Shorts and shipyard workers who marched in from the Harbour estate in East Belfast. In Derry 2,000 attended a rally in Guildhall Square. There were rallies and protests in a number of other towns.
Five days later, 8,000 demonstrated in Downpatrick against the threatened closure of local hospitals. This was probably the biggest united class demonstration ever held in Downpatrick. The Belfast march was the biggest Labour movement demonstration seen in the city since before the troubles began twenty years ago. It was class unity in action.
Yet these same days witnessed a dramatic escalation of violence. As the health workers demonstrated their unity a whole series of incidents took place which served to reinforce the sectarian divisions.
The morning after the health strikes a young shop steward, Charles McGrillen, was shot dead at Dunnes Stores where he worked. The murder was later claimed by the UFF who killed him presumably because he was a Catholic. The next day brought the gun and grenade attack on mourners at Milltown cemetery – and another three Catholics were dead. Two days later the IRA shot dead a young Protestant woman in Fermanagh.
In all, in the few days which separated the March 14th health strike from the Downpatrick demonstration, eight people were killed and one other, the Catholic victim of an earlier UFF shooting, died.
In one week the potential for class unity on the one side but for sectarian carnage on the other had been shown. That the Labour movement can unite workers on bread and butter issues there can be no doubt. But this is not enough.
This industrial unity, powerful as it is, will always remain under threat until the working class are united politically and until the threat of sectarian violence is removed. The latest killings are a serious warning as to what might happen in the next few weeks. Weakened by a series of military failures, the Provides are certain to attempt to step up their campaign. No matter what the intent, the effect can only be to increase sectarianism and invite retaliation.
It would appear that the loyalist paramilitaries have begun a new offensive. Like the Proves these groups lost ground last year. They are riven with dissent. The removal of Andy Tyrie from his position as commander-in-chief of the UDA could well prompt renewed UDA activity as different sections of that organisation try to assert themselves.
In the past it has often been precisely when they have felt themselves losing ground that the paramilitaries, especially loyalist groups, have been at their most vicious. This is likely to be even more the case now. The huge amounts of money extorted through protection rackets give them a powerful vested interest in maintaining sectarianism, even in turning Belfast into a European Beirut, so that pockets of the city would fall under their control.
During the mid-1970s the situation as in many respects similar to today. By then the mass upheaval which characterised the early years of the troubles had given way to a period of disillusionment and war weariness in both Catholic and Protestant areas.
Whereas in 1971-2 there had been a mass influx of the youth into the Provisional and Official IRAs and into the UDA, by the mid-1970s these groups were becoming more and more isolated. Opposition to their activities was developing within their own communities. In response the UVF and then the Provisionals and the UDA resorted in 1975 to a ferocious spate of tit-for-tat sectarian atrocities.
The events of 1975–6, firstly of sectarian reaction and then of united class opposition to sectarianism, are extremely instructive for the working class as it faces up to a new wave of sectarian attacks today.
1975 began with the declaration by the Provisionals of a ceasefire. It had become obvious that the futile methods of individual terrorism were not going to bring about the military victory early volunteers had imagined. The ceasefire was pressed for by the then Southern leadership of the Provos who naively imagined that they could negotiate an eventual British withdrawal.
The military campaign was a dead-end but without the campaign the Provos were nothing. So the ceasefire only made things worse for the organisation and was resented by activists in the North. Some areas never accepted it. By the autumn, frequent breaches led to inevitable breakdown and the open resumption of the campaign. Nonetheless the ceasefire did have some effect – in the first six months of 1975 only one British soldier was killed.
Despite this, there were more deaths in 1975 than in the previous year, 247 as opposed to 216. This was because of an increase in sectarian violence. As the paramilitary groups lost support and influence, they made ever more desperate efforts to regain lost ground at the expense of each other, but more particularly at the expense of innocent civilians. As violence directed against the slate forces partially subsided, sectarian violence and paramilitary feuding took its place.
By the summer of 1975, the troubles had become reduced to a war between the paramilitaries, with civilians most often the targets. Of the 27 people killed that August, 26 were the result of pub bombs or assassinations. Of 24 deaths in September, 22 resulted from sectarian bombings, shootings and paramilitary feuding.
Splits and feuds have always been a symptom of crisis within the paramilitaries. 1975 was a year of feuds. The split from the Official IRA to form the IRSP had led to a feud which left three members of the Officials and two of the IRSP dead. In October 1975 an even more vicious feud between the Provos and the Officials broke out only ending after 11 deaths.
Early in 1975, a power struggle in the UDA was resolved by the shooting and wounding of the West Belfast commander Harding Smith and his removal from his position. During that year the UVF underwent a series of leadership changes and for a period falling under an openly fascist leadership. Throughout 1975 there were a series of feuds involving the UDA and the UVF.
As it is today, it was quite clearly from a position of weakness and of desperation that the UVF, in the spring of 1975, began a horrific sectarian murder campaign. Retaliatory action by the Proves led to a period of sectarian mayhem. On 5th April a UVF bomb in Belfast’s New Lodge area killed two Catholics. The Provos responded with a pub bomb – killing five Protestants in the Mountainview Tavern. The next week, six Catholics were blown up in a Short Strand pub, an atrocity claimed by a smaller loyalist paramilitary group, the Red Hand Commandos.
So it went on – the murder by the UVF of three members of the Miami showband (one of the murderers was a serving member of the UDR), five Protestants killed as the Bayardo Bar in Belfast’s Shankill Road was blown up more pub bombs and deaths, 5 Protestants shot dead and 12 wounded in an attack on an Orange Hall, 11 people killed by the UVF in one day in early October ... It was at this time that the psychopathic loyalist gang, whose use of meat cleavers to finish of their victims earned them the title the Shankill Butchers, began their grisly activities.
Two or three years earlier atrocities like this would probably have provoked mass anger and demands for revenge. But by 1975 the battle scarred and war weary population was generally sick of sectarianism. While the killer stepped up their campaigns beneath the surface a mood of outrage and of opposition to all forms of sectarianism was beginning to develop among the working class.
A few relatively small scale incidents betokened this hardening class anger. The murder of Belfast bus inspector (who also happened to be in the UDA) led to a token strike by 700 Citybus workers in May 1975. In August after a no-warning bomb exploded in the Falls Road, a Protestant repair man who went to help clean up was stopped by the Provos and shot dead. Local people were outraged. A large number of Catholics from the Lower Falls attended the funeral.
A few weeks later an attempt was made to assassinate a worker at the Lagan Meat plant in the dock area of Belfast. The workers came out on strike and stayed out for a week demanding an assurance from the paramilitaries that such attacks would end.
In November the Provos-Officials feud was eventually brought to an end by the protests of working class people in West Belfast and elsewhere. When the Chairman of the Falls Taxi Association was killed, the drivers of the black taxis blocked the Falls Road and were joined by local people, demanding that the feuding stop.
Early the following month the IRA shot two Protestant businessmen in the centre of Derry. Workers throughout the city were outraged and turned to the local Trades Council demanding action. Under this pressure the Trades Council took the bold decision to organise a strike and demonstration of protest. 5,000 workers, Protestant and Catholic, supported their call. The workers of Derry had given the lead. They established the precedent of mass protest action by the trade union movement against sectarianism.
The start of 1976 saw the culmination of this spate of killings. In two incidents, 5 Catholics were murdered by the UVF. Republican retaliation was swift. A workers bus was stopped on a country road at Kingsmills and its occupants were shot dead. It’s occupants were lined up. The ten Protestants, all ATGWU members, were shot dead. The one Catholic was let go. Claimed by the ‘South Armagh Republican Action Force’ this was almost certainly carried out by a Provo unit, though possibly acting independently.
As in Derry the reaction took a class, not a sectarian form. Newry Trades Council organised a strike and drew thousands to a protest rally. Shop stewards in the Lurgan-Portadown area came together to organise a strike and demonstration though Lurgan. Factories, offices and shops closed as six to seven thousand people marched.
At this stage the mood of the working class was for decisive action to stop the killings. Attention was focussed on the trade union leaders of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU). Their offices were inundated with demands from workers for province wide action.
A one day general strike called at this moment would have received a massive echo. Instead, the timid and indecisive union leaders baulked at the prospect of a strike. Forced by rank and file pressure to do something they instead launched a campaign – the Better Life for All Campaign – opposing sectarianism and also raising demands for jobs, houses, educational and recreational facilities, albeit doing so in a very general way.
The campaign was launched on January 27th 1976 with a call for two minutes silence in memory of the dead of the Troubles. The call was supported in factories, offices and on the streets where traffic stopped. The potential for future more decisive action was clear.
In the end, the Better Life for All Campaign never went beyond this token and passive gesture. Over the next months there were campaign meetings, some local activity and a major conference. Demands for strike action were repeatedly discussed and no less repeatedly postponed. Inevitably as this discussion went on the mood ebbed partially and the sectarian groups who had been badly shaken were able to regain the initiative.
Still, the underlying mood remained anti-sectarian. On their own initiative, workers in the milk industry in Belfast took strike action in May against the murder of a colleague. In June Goodyear workers in Lurgan struck against an attempted assassination.
In the summer, while the Better Life for All Campaign Council was still meeting but doing nothing, one incident sparked a spontaneous mass movement against sectarianism. A car driven by an IRA volunteer went out of control when he was shot and killed by British soldiers. It crashed into railings, killing three young children from West Belfast.
Angry women, who two days later gathered at the spot in a mark of respect, called for a peace rally. 10,000 turned up. The peace movement, or Peace People as they came to be known, had begun. Over the next few weeks there were a series of mass rallies mainly of working class women from both communities. Most significant was a 30,000 strong march of Catholic and Protestants up Belfast’s Shankill Road.
The leaders thrown up by this movement were accidental figures who had no idea what to do. They refused to broaden the demands beyond the call for peace. Of poverty, unemployment or any other social issues they had nothing to say. Quickly they came to distinguish between paramilitary and state violence, ending up giving support to the latter. In short, they became apologists for the policies of the British ruling class and advocates of the status quo.
Since repression and poverty breed sectarianism any campaign against sectarian violence which did not also tackle these underlying causes was bound to fail. As the pro-establishment and ultimately reactionary stance of the peace leaders became clear and their support waned and the movement dissipated.
The events of this time represented a severe blow to the paramilitaries. Only with a change of leadership and through the prison issue and eventually the hunger strike did the Provos win back lost ground. Only the Anglo-Irish Agreement and its aftermath gave the loyalist groups the opportunity to try to recreate the conditions of the early 1970s.
What had been delivered was a stunning, not a knockout blow. The assassination campaign, especially by the loyalists, was scaled down but never stopped. If the trade union leaders had seized the opportunity which fell into their lap in January 1976 this need not have been so.
A one-day strike against sectarianism would have brought the North to a standstill. It could have been followed up with concrete trade union action, discussed and organised in every work place and every community to provide defence against sectarian attack. It could have created an opportunity for the unions to launch a political offensive to attempt to break workers from the hold of the right wing and sectarian parties.
In the heat of these great events a mass Labour Party could have been built. Workers could have been united in a political offensive against poverty and against repression. Not only the open manifestation but the very roots of sectarianism could have been removed. Had the opportunity been taken subsequent history would have been very different. As it is, this missed opportunity and others which followed in later years have allowed the present sectarian retrenchment.
As in 1975 there are now those, especially on the loyalist side, who are intent in worsening the conflict, even provoking civil war. The lesson of 1975–6 is that it is only the working class who can stop the killings. Only the official Labour movement has the authority and the muscle to organise workers to do so.
There is no point in looking to the state forces for an answer. Both the RUC and the UDR are sectarian in composition and seen as one-sided in their operation. Like them, the British army have no answer except to attempt to hold the line by repression. Capitalism has no solution to the problems of the North, be they the problems of poverty, of political instability or of violence. All that these armed instruments of capitalists governments can do is carry out a holding operation. Meanwhile the killings go on and more mainly working class families on both sides suffer.
The trade union leaders must stop looking to others for an answer. The responsibility rests on their shoulders. Action as in 1975–6 but even more resolute is now required. As in the period leading to the launch of the Better Life for All Campaign, the signs are there that such action would get a ready response. In the summer of 1986 strike action by over 4,000 DHSS workers forced the UDA to draw back from its efforts to intimidate Catholics from the workplaces. Some recent funerals of victims of sectarian killings have been attended by Catholics and Protestants. After the Milltown cemetery killings, at least two attempts by Catholic youths to petrol bomb Protestant homes in Belfast were stopped by Catholics.
The solidarity shown in recent strikes by health workers, Ford workers and seafarers is there to be built on. NIC-ICTU are conducting an on-going anti sectarian campaign – on paper! The Campaign for Peace and Progress launched in October 1986 at a conference along with businessmen and church leaders, has been defunct from the word go. Its effectiveness is well summed up by its new youth slogan ‘Hands off my mate’! Rather than learn the lessons of 1975–6, NIC-ICTU have responded to recent events with a worthless parody of the Better Life for All Campaign!
The real lessons of 1975–6 must be drawn – for mass action including strike action against sectarianism, for an ongoing campaign, building to a one-day general strike, for defence of all workers to be organised by the trade union and community groups for the immediate launching of a trade union based socialist Labour Party.
Last updated: 14.7.2012