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Peter Hadden

How we can defeat sectarianism

(January 1992)

From Militant Irish Monthly Supplement, January 1992.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Enough is enough. After 94 deaths last year, including 75 civilians, and with 1992 opening in an even more grisly manner with the Teebane atrocity, this is the sentiment of the vast majority of workers, Catholic and Protestant.

Already this angry mood has been expressed in the magnificent protests organised by the trade unions in Cookstown and Magherafelt and now, even more impressively, by the 4 February demonstration in Belfast. The clear message from these events to all the paramilitaries – a message we echo – is that it is time to call off your campaigns.

Now that workers have felt the power, the realisation is growing that by standing united the working class need not be helpless in the face of the sectarians but have the strength to stop the killings.

Two decades of sectarian violence have demonstrated beyond doubt that there is no other force which can achieve this. This – the clear lesson of the troubles – is the first issue which the present movement of workers must face.

The trade union leaders, under pressure from below, have brought workers onto the streets. But are they offering a clear strategy to take this movement forward?

Workers’ strength

There is a danger that, in order to try to avoid all difficult and controversial issues, the union leaders will choose not to rely on the strength of the working class, but will instead merely demand action from the government and the state to solve the problem.

This would be a criminal error which would threaten what has been achieved. The roots of sectarianism are to be found in the poverty and unemployment, rife in the North. So long as such conditions exist and so long as there is no united workers movement challenging them, there will be fertile ground for the bigots to flourish.

The Tories, as with every other government which bases itself on capitalism, are the authors of the poverty which breeds sectarianism and thus there is no point looking to them to come up with an answer.

As for the major political parties in the North, these are either sectarian or Tory and in most cases are both. Years of fruitless talks about talks have been enough to indicate their bankruptcy. The Paisleys, the Molyneauxs, and the Humes would not hold their political offices if sectarianism would be eliminated and so they all have a vested interest in seeing that workers remain divided along religious lines.


The one answer of all establishment forces has been, and is, more state repression. Yet the lesson of the past decades is that state repression does not work. The army and police have been incapable of defending workers. More repression – internment, shoot-to-kill, etc. – has only led to more resentment and has actually been a factor in keeping the troubles going. In any case the undemocratic methods of the state represent at threat to the rights of trade unionists to organise and struggle against government policies.

The momentum of this anti-sectarian campaign must now be stepped up. The next step must be the organisation of a 24 hour general strike and days of action against the killings. The power which is being demonstrated on the streets must be organised into a force which can provide protection to all workers in the estates and in the workplaces. As a first step anti-sectarian committees must be set up by the trade unions in the workplaces. These could deal with threats and intimidation and where necessary would organise to protect trade union members. Similar committees should also be organised in the working class areas and could organise to defend those living in those areas from the sectarian gunmen. These committees would be brought together in a conference which could elect a Ieadership to take the overall campaign forward.

Action such as this could dramatically change the situation in the North. However, defensive action alone will not eliminate sectarianism. It is necessary also to go on the offensive to eliminate its causes.

By linking the struggle against sectarianism with a struggle on other questions such as unemployment, health cuts, low wages and not least state repression, the labour movement would be offering an alternative to those youth who otherwise in despair, might turn to the paramilitaries.

It would be impossible to do this without coming into collision with the established political forces in the North. As we explain elsewhere in this broadsheet, with a general election in the offing, the trade union movement cannot hope to challenge sectarianism without entering the political arena. The natural and logical development of the present mass action is a political campaign to oust the bigots and Tories by challenging them with socialist Labour candidates in every one of the local constituencies.

An active and militant trade union movement linked to a socialist Labour Party – this is the direction which this campaign must take. Then by standing together with workers in Britain and also in the South, the movement could present a socialist solution to the otherwise unsolvable problem of Northern Ireland, a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland in which the interests of all workers would be guaranteed and bigotry of whatever shade would have no place.

We demand

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Last updated: 19 July 2015