Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland:

Tories Reach an Impasse

(Summer 1988)

From Militant International Review 37, Summer 1988, pp. 12–17.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement two and a half years was trumpeted as an ‘historic breakthrough’ by the capitalist press. Tory Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tom King, accepting that it would not solve all (!!) the problems, claimed it would “offer a unique opportunity to make progress towards their solution and to promote peace, stability and reconciliation”. (Letter to MPs, 15 November 1985)

All that the Labour leaderships in Britain and Ireland could manage to do was to echo these sentiments. Neil Kinnock pronounced that “today’s agreement is a step on the long road towards ending the violence, waste and fear which have plagued the people of Northern Ireland for so long”. (Labour Party press release, 15 November 1985)

Irish Labour leader, Dick Spring, hoped that “the Agreement, whatever difficulties there may be in the early stages, will gradually lead to the phasing out of violence, to peace and stability in all Ireland and to even better relations between Britain and Ireland”.; (Party Newsletter, 16 November 1985)

Agreement Stillborn

By contrast this journal opposed the Agreement, explaining that “it will produce instability, upheaval and violence. Because it will have solved nothing but its final net effect will, at best, be sectarianism.” (Militant International Review, Spring 1986) Events have confirmed our analysis and silenced those within the labour movement who welcomed this worthless bosses’ accord. The ‘troubles’ claimed 54 lives in 1985, the year of the signing of this ‘step to peace’. In 1986, 61 died. Last year the death toll was 93. There were 385 shooting incidents in 1986, 600 in 1987. The 173 bombings carried out in 1986 rose to 226 in 1987. 1988 has begun with, if anything, an intensification of the violence.

These bald statistics understate the scale of sectarian reaction that the agreement unleashed. Its first year brought a furious Protestant backlash with demonstrations, a one-day sectarian stoppage, massive intimidation of Catholics from their workplaces and their homes. Among the victims were many Militant supporters, some of whom suffered beatings whilst others were forced with their families to flee their homes. One, Colum McCallan, was assassinated by a loyalist paramilitary gang in July 1986.

For the ruling class the Agreement has proved a gross miscalculation. It is not the first such error made by the Thatcher government since 1979. Because the problem of Northern Ireland is insoluble on a capitalist basis, all capitalist answers are, in the end, only various roads to ruin. What distinguishes this particularly short sighted and stupid governments is that it has repeatedly chosen to go down the shortest road!

The arrogant intransigence of Thatcher is refusing any concessions to hunger striking Republican prisoners in 1981 directly led to the growth of political support for Sinn Fein, which has since threatened to overtake the middle class Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The government was forced to about face and offer apparent concessions to the Catholics.

This was the meaning of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By offering the Dublin government a say in the affairs of the North it held out the hope of reforms, albeit purely cosmetic in character, to the Catholics. In return the real substance of the Agreement was to be in the form of increased North-South security co-operation.

In the event, the Protestant backlash paralysed the Agreement from the outset. Even the paltry concessions initially implied could not be introduced. Instead the Tories have been forced to spend the last two years trying to pacify the Protestants and coax the Unionist politicians to the negotiating table. All that remains of the Agreement are its security aspects. Its only tangible effect in Catholic working class areas has been to increase repression.

The end result is that the Protestants remain diametrically opposed while Catholics are increasingly alienated from the Accord. A recent opinion poll carried out for UTV/Fortnight magazine found that 81% of Catholics thought that the Anglo-Irish Agreement had failed to benefit them.

Thatcher has reacted to the failure of this, her major political initiative, by turning to military means for an answer. The government’s present policy of ever more vicious and more naked repression is already succeeding in bitterly antagonising the Catholic working class. The wheel has come full circle since 1981, except now the Tories have succeeded in alienating both sections of the community.

Because of the role of the British capitalist media which has, conspiratorial style, either distorted or hidden the facts of the government’s repressive policies, it is worth documenting some of the more recent incidents. This is also necessary because the British Labour leaders, with a few honourable exceptions such as Eric Heffer over the Gibraltar killings, have either kept silent or disgracefully backed the Tories’ methods. To oppose the flagrant breaches of democratic rights which take place daily in Northern Ireland is not to give or even imply support for the methods of the Provisional IRA. On the contrary, the labour movement, by its silence, actually benefits the Provos, giving them a monopoly to tap the genuine opposition which these outrages invoke. The methods used in Northern Ireland today, if not successfully resisted, will be there for use against the labour movement in both Britain and Ireland.

Aidan McAnespie

Firstly, there has been the Stalker affair. As Deputy Chief Constable in Manchester, Stalker was a loyal police officer with right wing views. In 1983 he spent a year on Royal College Defence Studies course during which he studied ‘policing’ in Colombia, Brazil and Chile. “The small group of which I was a part,” he reports, “was hosted at Presidential level.” (Stalker, p. 20) As for Latin America, he “enjoyed and benefited from it greatly”. Not so Northern Ireland where he was sent in 1984 to investigate three incidents of the RUC shoot-to-kill policy in which six unarmed civilians were killed. Stalker was obstructed, threatened and refused access to evidence. When it became clear he was not going to produce a whitewash, his character was smeared and he was removed from the case.

The eventual report of Stalker and his successor Sampson indicted the RUC, exposing their deliberate cover up policy which involved police officers being ordered to tell lies. Yet in January the British Attorney General decided that no RUC officer should be prosecuted and that the matter should be dropped.

Then there is the case of the Birmingham Six: six Irishmen wrongly convicted of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings on the basis of the now discredited forensic evidence and confessions beaten out of them in police cells. Despite fresh evidence, both of the beatings and of police perjury in the original trial, three appeal judges recently upheld their convictions. One of these men is now seriously ill and likely to die in prison.

Aidan McAnespie was a young Catholic from Aughnacloy, a County Tyrone border town. He worked across the border in Monaghan where he was a shop steward. On 21 February he was walking towards the army border checkpoint, coming from a Gaelic football match, when a shot from an army observation post killed him. This incident has highlighted the day to day harassment of many Catholic workers meted out by the army and police and the lengths to which the establishment will go to cover up their methods.

Crossing over the border every day, Aidan McAnespie was regularly detained. On many occasions he was told by soldiers that he was on the death list. The day before he was shot he and his mother were held for 90 minutes. The army version of the killing was that a ricocheting bullet, accidentally fired, had killed him. A report from the Northern Ireland pathologist hurriedly confirmed this. Those on the spot who witnessed the bullet wound thought differently. When the body was exhumed to allow a Southern pathologist to examine it, it was found that a piece of his chest, important to reveal the trajectory of the bullet, was missing. The Southern report has not contradicted that of the North but there are grounds for suspicion that a huge cover up has been effected.

Gibraltar killings

While the ‘security forces’ can issue death threats to people like Aidan McAnespie with apparent immunity, not so the other way round. In March 1987 a 19 year old Catholic was sentenced to four years in prison for shouting ‘we will get you’ at a UDR army officer!

The soldier who killed Aidan McAnespie need lose no sleep worrying about his fate. During the years since 1969, the army have shot dead over 120 civilians, and killed a further 16 with rubber or plastic bullets. Only one soldier has been convicted of murder. With immaculate timing, the government released him on 23 February, only two days after the McAnespie killing. Private Thrain had served just three years. He was allowed to rejoin his regiment, from which he had never been discharged. His age, only 18 at the time of the killing, was given as the reason.

Compare this with the treatment of young people from Northern Ireland serving sentences for crimes committed during the troubles, often carried out when they were in their teens. Currently there are 45 Secretary of State’s Pleasure (SOSP) prisoners, people given indeterminate sentences, many of whom have already served over 10 years and have no release date. In Long Kesh (the Maze), there are 500 prisoners serving life. Two hundred, among them both Republicans and Loyalists, have served over 10 years. Thirty five were jailed when they were under 18. Examples include Sammy Dines from Belfast’s Short Strand, convicted when he was 17 of planting two bombs on a train and who has already served 12 years, and Sean Dorman from Belfast who has already served 11 years for hijacking a car.

Only weeks after the government closed the book on the 1982 examples of the RUC shoot-to-kill policy, this policy was again put into force, this time by the SAS in Gibraltar. On 6 March three members of an IRA bomb unit were gunned down mercilessly and without warning, bullets pumped into their bodies at point blank range. All were unarmed. The bomb had not yet been planted.

As with the McAnespie killing this case highlighted the disinformation role of the propaganda machine of the ruling class. Initial claims spread over all the media and announced by Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in Parliament, that a bomb had been planted, and that a challenge had been given, have been contradicted by the facts. The reason for the hasty cover up is clear. The case is even more serious than the Stalker inquiry because the facts coming to light point more clearly and directly to these killings having been sanctioned at British Cabinet level, possibly by Thatcher herself. This makes certain that if an enquiry is set up, the result will be to exonerate the SAS. It also explains Thatcher’s furious condemnation of an ITV programme which presented evidence damning to the government’s version of events.

Daily harassment

Following this programme Thatcher indignantly stated: “Trial by television or guilt by association is the day that freedom dies. The freedom of people depends on the rule of law and a fair legal system. The place to have trials is in a court of law.” By that reckoning there is not much freedom in Northern Ireland! Trial by television may not be justice but at least it is less final than what was offered to the three killed in Gibraltar – trial by bullet!

These killings drew world attention. But as with Aidan McAnespie’s death, the events surrounding this incident revealed the other, more mundane, side of repression, the day to day harassment of civilians, which generally remains hidden outside the Catholic working class areas. As the coffins of the Gibraltar victims were brought back into the North, police vehicles repeatedly drove into the hearses, and the cortège was slowed down near Protestant areas, inviting attack. Near Belfast the hearse containing the body of Sean Savage was ‘stolen’: a soldier removed the driver and drove the vehicle at speed through West Belfast, finally abandoning it at the family home.

The Loyalist gun and grenade attack on the Gibraltar funerals which left three dead and dozens injured has also raised questions about the security forces. That the attacker, Michael Stone, a self-styled Loyalist mercenary, was able to take advantage of the unusually low-key policing of the funerals suggests complicity from at least some level of the RUC. Furthermore, when in court, Stone confessed to three other sectarian killings, describing the victims as “legitimate targets” stating that he had “seen their files”.

Even the killing of the two out-of-uniform soldiers at an IRA funeral in Andersonstown a few days later raises questions about the role of state forces, and will most likely end in the state further antagonising the Catholic working class. The facts of this case have been buried under hysterical condemnation in the capitalist press. Ignored is the fact that the soldiers were challenged by stewards a number of times and asked to drive away. Instead they drove at speed at the funeral scattering people as they went. Army claims they were on the scene “by accident” are a little incredulous, although what their purpose was is far from clear.

Everybody, journalists, soldiers in helicopters overhead and the crowd alike, assumed this was another Loyalist attack. The initial reaction of the crowd in surrounding and disarming them was understandable and justified. What was not justified was the fact that once overpowered, identified and no longer a threat, they were taken by the IRA and killed. As with all IRA actions, this was totally counter-productive, clouding the whole issue and giving the government a powerful propaganda weapon.

Now widespread arrests of those involved in the initial attack are taking place. Thatcher will probably seek her pound of flesh in convictions and long sentences. The result will be to put the propaganda boot on the other foot as the issue could become a Northern Ireland version of South Africa’s Sharpeville Six case.

Even from a capitalist point of view this policy of repression, of a solution by military means, becomes counter-productive after a certain stage. In a recent poll 7% of Catholics in the North said their sympathies for Sinn Fein had disappeared after the IRA atrocity at Enniskillen. But 9% said they were more sympathetic to the IRA after the Stalker affair and the Birmingham Six judgement. So, on the one hand, the bosses cannot impose a military solution. On the other, their every effort to find a political answer has at best fallen around their ears or, as with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, only made matters worse.

Marxists have long explained that with all avenues to a solution blocked, instability and violence are permanent features of capitalism in Ireland. Recently we have been joined in our analysis by one capitalist journal, The Economist. With the euphoria of November 1985 now only a faint memory, the March 26 1988 issue soberly states: “Most political problems have solutions. A few do not. Northern Ireland is one of them, certainly now and perhaps for decades.” To take any initiative the ruling class must court disaster. But to do nothing is no less dangerous. Answering this dilemma, The Economist continues: “That does not mean that politicians should stop seeking solutions to its problems, on the contrary their search is the best way to prevent things getting even worse. Northern Ireland needs plenty of politics – concords, initiatives, communiqués, commissions of enquiry and much more so the arguments are conducted politically and not by the gun.”

Devolved government?

This statement explains the recent efforts by government ministers to find some formula for devolved government in the North – not in any real hope that it will solve anything but to keep the politicians in business and provide a smokescreen to hide the repression. Sadly for Thatcher two factors of her own creation make devolution much more difficult to achieve than in the 1970s, even on a short term basis. The first is the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Unionists will agree to a devolved government, possibly even power sharing – but only if the Agreement is scrapped. For the SDLP participation in a new assembly in return for abandoning the Agreement would be tantamount to political suicide at this stage. Even if the Tories were to come up with some formula to get round this difficulty, the second factor, the growth of Sinn Fein, presents an impassable barrier to the stabilisation of any new assembly.

It is the political presence of Sinn Fein which narrows the SDLP’s options. Sinn Fein poll around 12% of the vote. They have 61 council seats and one Westminster seat. In some working class Catholic areas they outvote the SDLP. Since Sinn Fein won their council seats the work of the councils has been virtually paralysed. If Sinn Fein entered a new assembly their presence would disrupt it. If they refused to take their seats and as it became clear that the assembly could solve nothing, that poverty and repression were to remain, so they would undermine the SDLP’s position within it, forcing the latter to either withdraw or risk being overtaken as the largest Catholic party. Lasting and effective democratic institutions are now impossible in Northern Ireland. Thatcher’s policy of errors has left her government less room to manoeuvre than any previous.

The inability of the capitalist class and their representatives to overcome the national problem is no accident. It stems from the economic impasse of capitalism in Ireland. The south of Ireland is the poorest country in North West Europe. In the last four years its National Debt has doubled. Total debt is now equal to 150% of GNP. Unemployment at 19% is the second highest in Europe after Spain. It would be much higher but for emigration. Over the last five years 100,000 people have voted with their passports and left the country.

The relative upswing in world capitalism since 1982 has largely bypassed the North. For example, whereas industrial output in Britain rose by 2% between the third quarter of 1985 and that of 1986, in Northern Ireland it fell by 4.4%. Ground lost in the 1979-82 recession has not been recovered. In fact, in January 1987 manufacturing output was at the same level as 1968! 40% of manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1979. Of the 97,000 that remain, 90,000 are in part subsidised by the state, by an average of £39 per week for every worker.

Only public sector spending keeps the economy afloat. 45% of total employment is in the public sector. Maintaining this situation requires a massive annual subvention from the British exchequer, now equal to one third of all government spending in the North. Poverty is widespread and severe. This is the second poorest region in the EEC, after Calabria in southern Italy. More than 19% of the workforce are unemployed, plus some 20,000 on various ‘training’ schemes. Social security benefits account for just over 23% of household income, 14% in Britain, 23% of households have an income of less than £50 per week.

Neither the British nor the Irish capitalist classes can offer a future which would improve the lot of the people of the North, either Catholic or Protestant. Whatever option they come up with will be unacceptable to one, the other or to both communities.

The Catholic population, particularly the working class, cannot be permanently reconciled to the existence of the present state which they see offers them only poverty. On the other hand, capitalist reunification of Ireland, the preferred solution of the British ruling class – although the prospect is viewed with dread and in practice would be opposed by the southern capitalists – is ruled out. Those who dismissed the idea of a Protestant backlash as bluff have had their answer in the reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That was mild compared to what would happen if any real steps to reunification were taken. There would be armed resistance and civil war. The outcome would be repartition, the creation of two reactionary police states, with the Protestants most likely holding most of the existing northern state.

No capitalist solution

The resolution of the national problem is a democratic, not really a socialist task. Because they cannot offer economic security, the capitalists cannot promote a democratic settlement. So this task falls to the only class which can take society forwards – the working class. Only on a socialist basis can Ireland be reunited and a formula advanced which could permanently resolve the crisis – a socialist Ireland as a free and equal part of a voluntary socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

With much of what has been said in this article the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA might agree. On this issue we must part company. Because they also advocate a capitalist solution, the ideas of Sinn Fein are no less worthless than those of Thatcher and the other representatives of British imperialism. The present Sinn Fein and IRA leadership advance a variant of the Stalinist theory of stages – in this case that British withdrawal and independence must be achieved before a struggle for socialism can be begun.

Given that readers in Britain and internationally, outside the USA, are generally presented with the ‘left’, ‘socialist’ face of Sinn Fein, it is worth quoting the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams at length on this point: “Real national independence is the prerequisite of socialism … socialism includes and is a stage in the advance of republicanism.” (The Politics of Irish Freedom, p. 128) “This classical (republican – PH) view of the matter contrasts with the ultra left view which counter-poses republicanism and socialism and which breaks up the unity of the national independence movement by putting forward ‘socialist’ demands that have no possibility of being achieved until real independence is won, the result is that one gets neither independence or socialism.” (p. 138)

Adams here stands reality on its head. As Connolly many times explained, only socialism can bring ‘real’ independence. And socialism can only be achieved by the working class, united in struggle. Adams’ “unity of the national independence movement” means all stand together for a capitalist Ireland. Protestant workers could never be won to such a slogan. This ‘nationalist’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ unity as in an abuse of language it is sometimes termed, is the antithesis of class unity. The result of this strategy is that the only force which could defeat imperialism, the working class, is left divided and confused and, to borrow a phrase from Gerry Adams, “the result is that one gets neither independence nor socialism.”

Sinn Fein’s incorrect ideas are compounded by the false methods of the IRA. The proudest boast of the Provos is that they cannot be defeated. But after nearly two decades of their military campaign this is hardly the issue. The real question is can they win? The answer, resoundingly, is no.

Individual terrorism can never succeed in defeating the might of the British or any other capitalist state. There is not a case in history where such methods have succeeded. Half acknowledging this, some IRA leaders argue that their intention is to ‘wear down the will’ of the British to stay in Ireland, thereby forcing them to the conference table. The gaping hole in this argument is the fact that the British have no longer any interest in retaining their direct control over the North. Their economic interests, not least the £1.5 billion annual subvention plus the cost of the troops, dictate that they should leave. They need no encouragement from the armalites and explosives of the IRA.

That they stay has nothing to do with ‘political will’ and is all to do with the fact that they have no choice. Withdrawal would mean civil war leading to a Palestine situation on Britain’s doorstep. The status quo, however difficult, is preferable for them. The only effect of the Provos campaign is to make civil war a more certain outcome of withdrawal and to give the British ruling class even less option but to remain.

By and large, success for the Provos’ terrorist tactics in reality becomes failure, whereas it is when they fail that they gain most success. This is the cul-de-sac into which individual terrorism has led them.

For example, the Gibraltar bombing failed and the Provos scored a huge propaganda success. Had the bombing been successful, the result would largely have been a carnage akin to the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bomb, except this time the majority of victims would probably have been tourists, not Protestant civilians. Fortunately for the Provos they failed, just as unfortunately for them the Enniskillen bomb went off.

At the time of the Enniskillen bomb and again when the two soldiers were shot dead in Andersontown, the Anglo-Irish Agreement has all but collapsed over the issues of extradition and of Gibraltar. These two ‘successful’ IRA actions provided the Dublin government with the excuse to resume the Anglo-Irish meetings and, in the first case, allowed them to ratify the Single European Act which would not have gone through the Dail as it facilitates extradition. At the time of writing, the ‘successful’ killing of three soldiers in Holland has again allowed ‘security’ to be top of the agenda at an Anglo-Irish ministerial meeting.

Individual terrorism strengthens the state giving the excuse for repression. In Northern Ireland it has greatly deepened the division between the working class. Mass action, not the deeds of individuals no matter how well armed, organised and dedicated, is the only way to change society. No matter what the intent, in the last analysis intent is of no importance, the effect of the Provos activities has been completely reactionary. Their best contribution to the genuine ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle, the class struggles for socialism, would be to call a ceasefire.

Working class unity is the only answer. The basis for this unity lies in the conditions faced by both Catholic and Protestant workers. Catholics have suffered decades of discrimination and today face higher rates of unemployment. In the Lower Falls area of West Belfast more than 50% of heads of households are unemployed. Some estates have much higher figures: Twinbrook, 82%, Divis, 95%. 82% of Lower Falls households survive on a weekly income of less than £100. (Falls Community Council Figures)

DHSS strikes

Yet contrary to some nationalist mythology, working class Protestants are no pampered elite. Alongside the Lower Falls and separated from it by a huge barrier, the ‘peace line’, is the Protestant Lower Shankhill. Here unemployment is lower – at 34%! But the poverty is no different. 93% of households depend to some degree, and 56% are entirely dependent, upon state benefits. 50% of households have a weekly income of less than £60, two thirds live on less than £90 per week. (Belfast Unemployment Centre Survey).

Protestant and Catholic workers face the same Tory attacks, the same cuts in services and benefits. On these issues unity in struggle has already been magnificently achieved. On March 14th, the day the bodies of the Gibraltar victims were returned, there was a partial general strike in defence of the health service. Over 12,000 demonstrated in Belfast in the biggest labour movement demonstration for decades. 2,000 marched in Derry. A few days later, 10,000 turned out to protest against the closure of local hospital services in Downpatrick, undoubtedly the biggest class demonstration ever held in this town. Similarly, 2,000 turned up to a public meeting in the small town of Ballycastle in April on the same issue. But for the indecisive role of the trade union leaders, who issued no clear strike call on March 14 and who have failed to organise follow up action, this movement would have been more extensive.

Recent strikes have been solid and militant and, in each case, have involved Catholic and Protestant workers standing shoulder to shoulder. 1987 began with the NCU dispute, the North being one of the most militant regions. In the summer, Abbey meat workers stayed out for 16 weeks and won an important victory. More recently Ford workers and seafarers have displayed the same militancy. Despite a deeper recession than in Britain the fall in trade union membership has not been as sharp. Between 1979 and 1987 trade union membership fell from 238,000 to 224,000, a tiny drop and proportionately less than the fall in TUC numbers from 12.7 million to something over 9 million today.

Over the past two and a half years the unity of the workforce and of the unions has come under attack from both Loyalists and Republicans. These attacks have been repulsed. Workers have moved into struggle not just on economic issues but also against sectarianism. The furious sectarian reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement came to a head in the summer of 1986. Alongside a massive campaign by the UDA to drive Catholics from the workplaces, there came a threat from the IRA to anyone working for or supplying the security forces. Tens of thousands of workers, cleaners, telephone engineers and civil servants, became ‘legitimate targets’.

In mid-August a telephoned threat was made to Catholic staff working in the DHSS office in Lisburn. All the workers walked out. With Militant supporters playing a leading role, the action was spread to every DHSS office. As office after office closed and 4,000 workers, Catholic and Protestant, came out, the UDA, who had issued the threat, backed down. Even though DHSS workers had shown concretely how the movement could begin a fightback, the trade union leaders, both the right wing and the Stalinist ‘left’, were at a complete loss. Not one leader attempted to organise similar action. Shortly after the DHSS victory, but apparently oblivious of its significance, Terry Carlin, the Northern Ireland Officer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) spoke in despairing tones to The Irish Times, 23 August 1986: “Right now there’s not much hope knocking on this side. It’s very frustrating. Some branches have spent last fortnight dealing solely with intimidation complaints and often there is not a great deal the unions can do.”

The DHSS action, along with threats by other trade unionists to take similar action, cut across the mounting sectarianism. Eventually under pressure from below the ICTU leaders did launch an anti-sectarian campaign, the ‘Peace, Jobs and Progress’ campaign. Conducted in conjunction with the church leaders and employers and appealing also to the politicians, this campaign never went beyond the drawing boards.

When the killings were stepped up earlier this year, the trade union leaders and their campaign were nowhere to be seen. In particular, when a young shop steward, Charles McGrillen, was gunned down outside the supermarket in Belfast where he worked , neither the ICTU nor his ‘Communist’ Party led union, the ATGWU, took any action. In this situation Militant supporters proposed a resolution, through Derry Trades Council, for the Northern Ireland Committee Conference of ICTU, held in April, that the movement should prepare its members to take strike action in the event of further intimidation or physical attacks on trade unionists. The bureaucracy prevented this motion from being discussed.

One again it has been the DHSS workers, with Militant supporters again giving the lead, who have shown the way. They have implemented the Derry resolution which the trade union bureaucracy refused even to discuss. At the end of April a threat from the INLA against DHSS fraud officers in Derry was answered by the entire Derry DHSS office coming out on strike. By the next morning the strike had spread to every DHSS office and within hours the INLA publicly withdrew the threat.

Throughout the troubles the trade union and Labour leaderships in Britain and Ireland, North and South, have relied upon and supported Tory measures. The Labour government of 1974–79 carried on and even intensified the repressive methods of its predecessor. By and large the union leaders have turned a blind eye to repression. The end result of their reliance on the state forces has been to leave the working class defenceless in face of sectarian attacks.

Only the working class, acting independently, has the power to break the sectarian impasse. This is what the DHSS strikes have clearly demonstrated. What is now needed is the mobilisation of the entire movement against the bigots. The best way to begin such a mobilisation would be through the convening of a rank and file conference of the unions and genuine community organisations to discuss concretely what action to take against sectarianism and how the working class can be organised in its own defence.

Defensive action alone will not be enough. So long as workers remain divided politically the Tories and bigots will always retain an influence. A political offensive must also be launched. Such a conference should also discuss the formation and building of a mass socialist Labour Party. If this party adopted and vigorously campaigned against all Tory attacks on living standards and democratic rights, and put forward a clear socialist alternative, the majority of both Catholic and Protestant workers could be won to its banner.

Change course

Sceptics will scorn that this is ‘too difficult’ and there are no greater sceptics than the right wing and Stalinist trade union leadership. But this was the same argument these gentlemen advanced 20 years ago to excuse their refusal to mount a struggle for socialist class unity when the troubles began. They preferred the ‘less difficult’, more ‘realistic’ course of abandoning an independent class position and supporting the ruling class. This ‘easier’ course has led through internment, Bloody Sunday, the UWC stoppage, the hunger strikes, the Anglo-Irish Agreement to two decades of violent upheaval in which the class movement has been thrown back and close to 3,000 people have lost their lives.

Militant has never said that the struggle for class unity and socialism in Northern Ireland would be simple or straight forward – because of the policy of the Labour and trade union leaderships it is far less so today than it was 20 years ago. But it is far less arduous than the alternative – more failed Tory initiatives, more repression, more poverty, more and eventually much worse sectarian violence. The choice is stark – either fight for class unity and socialism or face vicious sectarian reaction. Since 1968, the year which marked the beginning of the troubles, the leaders of the workers organisations have made the wrong choice. Twenty years on a complete change of course is demanded.

Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 14.7.2012