ARE THE TIES of class going to prove stronger than the ties of religion? This is the real question which will decide Northern Ireland’s future. Although there are still the lingering effects of anti-Catholic discrimination, Protestant and Catholic workers have far more in common with each other than they have with the middle and upper class of either religion.
Health cuts, privatisation, student loans, cheap labour YTP schemes, poverty wages, VAT on fuel – these indignities do not discriminate on religious lines. But they do discriminate in that it is the working class, not the rich, who suffer their effects most.
Likewise it is in the working class areas that the effects of the Troubles have been felt. For the wealthy living miles away from army and police patrols and from the areas scoured by death squads, Northern Ireland has offered a peaceful and pleasant life.
The richest 1% now have an average income of £84,000 per year. Rich Catholics in this bracket have long moved away from the ghettos, moving into what formerly were upper middle class Protestant areas like Belfast’s Malone Road. Rich Protestants have tended to retreat to sanctuaries such as North Down and the Ards peninsula. There, the ugly eyesore of Bangor’s new marina is crammed with evidence of opulence, the golf courses are full and life for the wealthy is free of the stresses and strains of the working class areas. Ask these people as they board their yachts for their views of the effects of ‘The Troubles’ and they will only be able to reply, “what Troubles?”
Working class unity is not utopian. It exists and always has existed to some degree. Protestant and Catholic workers stand together on a thousand and one issues in the workplaces and in the unions. Countless campaigns against health cuts, privatisation and other local issues have cut right through the religious divide. Strikes have always united Catholic and Protestant – in fact, during the whole period of the Troubles not a single strike has been broken because of sectarianism. Recent strikes by textile workers, shipyard workers, bank workers, staff in Electricity showrooms, at the Montupet car component’ s factory and others – have shown the readiness of workers to unite.
Perhaps the most spectacular examples of class unity have been on the issue of sectarianism itself. Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party) has had a crucial role in developing these movements.
In the summer of 1986, at the height of the Protestant backlash against the Anglo Irish Agreement, Militant members were to the fore in organising strikes by DHSS workers against sectarian intimidation of Catholic staff in one office. At that time intimidation was a widespread and growing problem but as other workers followed the DHSS example the issue subsided.
In January 1992 an IRA bomb killed eight Protestant workers who were travelling in a van through Teebane Crossroads in Mid-Ulster. The Militant led Mid-Ulster Trades Council organised a local general strike in protest. Thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers came out in support and mass rallies were held in two local towns, Cookstown and Magherafelt.
Soon after UDA killers entered a bookies’ office on Belfast’s Ormeau Road and sprayed those inside with indiscriminate gunfire. Five people died. With the example of the Mid-Ulster general strike fresh in mind, pressure was placed on the trade union leaders who organised a protest in Belfast city centre. At least 20,000 turned out.
Early in October 1993 loyalists shot a Catholic who worked on a contract basis for the Shorts aircraft factory. Again largely on the initiative of Militant members over 1,000 Shorts workers walked out to attend a protest rally at the entrance to the Harbour industrial estate, only yards from where the killing took place.
Days later, on 10 October, when ten people died in the botched IRA bomb attack on a fishmonger’s shop on the Shankill Road, Shorts and shipyard workers, including those Catholics on site, walked across Belfast to the pile of debris where this atrocity had taken place. The fact that the earlier protest, in which Protestants had come out against the killing of a Catholic, had taken place, helped maintain unity.
One week later when the UDA hit back gunning down seven people in a bar in Greysteel, Co. Derry. Militant Labour, along with other trade union activists, mounted pressure for trade union action. When the trade union leaders called a day of protest in November some 75,000 took part in lunchtime rallies right across the North. Had a call been issued for a one day general strike the turnout would have been even greater. Each of these mobilisations was decisive in cutting across the tit-for-tat killings and atrocities of the time and in each case it was actions largely initiated by Militant members which started the protests off.
These examples show the potential which has existed – and which still exists – for class unity. Had the trade union leaders followed the anti-sectarian rallies with ongoing mass action, the campaigns of the paramilitaries would have been forced to a halt much earlier.
Militant Labour demanded ongoing action, including a one-day general strike and the setting up through trade union and community organisations of anti-sectarian committees to counter sectarian intimidation and violence both in workplaces and estates.
The union leaders preferred inaction. Instead of a follow up they meekly called on the government and the politicians to come up with a solution. This strategy of relying on the Tories and politicians plus the spectacle of representatives of employer’s organisations on the platforms of the mass anti-sectarian rallies positively repelled many workers.
What was needed was independent action, including political action to unite the working class against the bigots and against the bosses. Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party) raised the call for the building of a trade union based socialist Labour party to provide a political alternative around which workers could organise and unite.
The likely establishment of a local Assembly gives a new meaning to this call. Now more than ever workers need a political voice to put forward their solution, as opposed to the sectarian answers of the unionists and nationalists.
On the local councils, the Unionists, SDLP, Alliance and DUP faithfully do the bidding of the Tory government. Sinn Fein have provided no real opposition either. Services have been privatised, jobs and conditions cut. When these same people get their hands on health, education, housing and local civil service functions, there is no reason to believe they will not do likewise.
A conference of trade unions and Trades Councils, with rank and file representation from union branches and shop steward’s bodies, from bona fide working class community organisations and from socialist groups, should be called to found a campaigning socialist Labour party.
Such a party could campaign outside, and should it win seats, inside an Assembly demanding that its powers should be used to scrap the health Trusts, restore the Housing Executive’s direct labour system, abolish the Tories’ new test system in primary education, pay adequate grants students and scrap the loan system and bring the electricity service and ail other privatised concerns back into public ownership. It could organise opposition to water privatisation, including a mass non-payment campaign should this measure go ahead.
These demands plus campaigns for jobs for all, for an adequate minimum wage, for a cut in the working week with no loss in pay to create jobs, for the expansion of all public services to meet need, would gain overwhelming support among the working class and even big sections of the middle class.
The capitalists and their political backers would reply that society cannot afford these things. It is true that their society cannot provide everyone with a job and a reasonably secure future. It can afford to hand over tens of millions to foreign capitalists to draw them to Northern Ireland. It can afford to spend billions on armaments and weapons of mass destruction. But it cannot provide health care free to every citizen.
It is the working class who cannot afford this society. The alternative is a society in which the wealth, and the control over that wealth is in the hands of the people, not of a few profiteers. Big industries, insurance companies and banks should be taken into public ownership and run, not by rich directors or bureaucrats, but by elected boards with majority representation from the trade unions including people elected directly by the workforce in that industry. In this way the working class could determine that the wealth they produce is used for the benefit of the whole of society.
If this programme were put forward and fought for by the trade union leaders in launching a new political force the monopoly of politics enjoyed by sectarians and Tories could be broken. The current union leadership, dominated by a bloc of right wing and extremely conservative officials, prefer to remain in the political shadows and use every bureaucratic restriction to prevent politics being discussed by the rank and file.
The struggle for the building of a mass socialist party is; therefore also a struggle to democratise and transform the unions. Union leaders with their large salaries – the highest paid General Secretary in Britain now earns £70,000 a year – and pampered life styles are far removed from the problems faced by their membership. Full lime officials must be made accountable. Just as shop stewards and rank and file positions are regularly elected, so full lime officials should be subject to annual re-election. The days when their pay is closer to that of the management they with than that of their members, should end. They should receive the same wages as those they represent with expenses properly audited to ensure that only incurred expenditure is paid out.
Similarly within a socialist Labour party the rank and file would need to ensure that its public representatives steer clear of the political gravy train which sucks in the careerists of all other parties. Militant Labour has established a tradition whereby all its members standing for public office pledge to live on an average worker’s wage and to donate the rest of their salaries to the working class movement. This should be the norm for working class political organisations as the only guarantee that their leaders don’t end up like Tony Blair of British Labour or Irish Labour’s Dick Spring, indistinguishable in life-style and political ideas from their counterparts in the capitalist parties.
In this way the working class can not only build, but can take control of its own organisations and ensure that they remain as fighting instruments dedicated to creating a socialist society. The role of Militant Labour within a new socialist Labour party would be to fight to ensure that there was no backsliding from socialist ideas and determined struggle. With these ideas and with organisations built around them the entire situation in Northern Ireland could be transformed – workers’ unity, not sectarian division, could become the dominant feature of society.
Some will say, all this is fine but that when issues such as discrimination, repression and especially the border are raised, it will be everybody back to their respective sectarian bunkers. True, Protestant and Catholic working class people have tended to be polarised on these issues and, true also, this polarisation has increased dramatically over the last twenty-five years. But it is not true that any unity built between workers will come to pieces when such questions come up. The critical issue is who raises them and in what manner.
If raised by sectarians they will certainly prove divisive. However this is in itself reason enough for the labour movement to take them up. Silence by the labour movement does not mean that these issues go away. It simply leaves the field clear to others to raise them in a sectarian manner. This has been the painful lesson of the last twenty-five years.
If socialists are to break the influence of sectarians among the working class they must not restrict themselves to economic, bread and butter struggles. They must be the champions of all freedoms; freedom from poverty and want, yes, but also freedom from oppression, from discrimination, freedom of speech and association, freedom of religious, cultural and national aspirations.
The only rights which the working class have any interest in removing are the rights of the bosses and their agents to exploit, divide and repress. It is in the interests of the working class as a whole to uphold and defend the rights of all minorities, whether national, cultural, racial, sexual or religious and to combat ignorance, bigotry and prejudice in all its manifestations.
Explained and campaigned upon in this manner the seemingly difficult and divisive issues which the labour movement in Northern Ireland has tended to avoid can in fact cement working class unity.
The old system of crude and blatant discrimination built up by Unionist politicians and employers which effectively excluded Catholics from many employments has largely been dismantled, although its shadow lingers in the form of still higher Catholic unemployment.
The government’s answer is to attempt to press employers to balance up the Protestant/Catholic ratio in workplaces and to issue regular figures showing the results. This, and the system of quotas favoured by some, inevitably causes resentment as Protestants feel less favoured, or feel that they are further up the line when redundancies come. All this amounts to is a reshuffling of a declining number of jobs between Catholics and Protestants.
Militant Labour strenuously opposes the use of religion as a criteria either in recruitment or promotion. Quotas might mean less imbalance but they do not mean more jobs. The real answer, while combating discrimination, is to fight for jobs for all.
At present the allocations of public services are decided by unelected bureaucrats accountable only to the government ministers who control the purse strings. The Tory answer to accountability is to privatise so that the god of money will decide where resources go and who gets what.
The health, education and housing services should be democratised. Even if transferred to the remit of an Assembly, their day to day running should be in the hands of elected boards on which a two thirds majority is given to representatives of the trade unions and the working class community organisations. Through such control the working class could ensure that these resources are properly and fairly allocated, that there is no discrimination and that minority interests are catered for.
Throughout the Troubles the issue of state repression has been regarded as taboo by the right-wing leaders of the trade unions and labour movement. Claiming repression is too difficult a subject to raise without dividing their members they have instead tended to support the police and army.
The result has been to cut them off from working class areas. First, by remaining silent on the brutal methods used to try to cow Catholic working class areas, they made themselves at best irrelevant to these communities. Then, when similar methods were used at times in Protestant areas they were in no position to speak out. It was republican and loyalist groups who benefited by appearing to be the only people prepared to stand up to state harassment. A policy of silence under the excuse of maintaining the unity of the labour movement only contributed to the division of the working class.
Militant Labour by contrast, have shown that it is possible to combat repression and to do so in a class fashion which unites, not divides the working class. 50 Militant Labour members have successfully moved motions in trade union branches and conferences in front of audiences of Protestant and Catholic, on issues such as the Birmingham 6, the Guildford 4, the Armagh (or UDR) 4, the Beechmount 5, plastic bullets, supergrasses, the hunger strikes and many other questions.
In raising these issues Militant has always argued that repressive methods used exclusively against either republicans or loyalists are likely to be retained for future use against the working class when it moves into struggle. The excuse used by the state to justify repression is that under emergency conditions the luxury of democratic rights cannot be afforded. The reality is that emergency or special measures tend to be retained by the capitalist state long after the situation which provided the pretext for their introduction has passed.
Past excuses for the suspension of democratic rights have been shredded by the IRA and loyalist ceasefires. The labour movement must now campaign forcefully to see that the entire apparatus of repression built up over 21 years is dismantled.
All repressive legislation – passed by Westminster and the Southern Dail – should be repealed. A labour movement inquiry into the methods used by the state over twenty five years should set out to reveal the truth about the dirty tricks employed by the state, including the shoot to kill policy and links between sections of the state and loyalist paramilitaries. Exposing these methods would make it more difficult to use them in future.
The IRA campaign has been called off with no firm deal on the prisoners. A phased release will probably be begun but their fate now is at the whim of the Tory government. The labour movement should demand the immediate release of those convicted for offences arising out of the Troubles. The only exceptions must be those who have committed sectarian crimes and whose motivation was blatantly sectarian and in no way political. A labour movement review of the cases of all prisoners could establish whose case the working class should take up. All prisoners held in British prisons should immediately be transferred back to the North. It is the families who suffer the hardship and financial burden of this situation and there is no justification for its continuation.
The army were always an instrument of repression, not of defence of either section of the working class. The military installations which dot the landscape – one for every 500 people in South Armagh – and which offer more harassment, not more protection, should be closed clown. The army itself should be withdrawn.
Instead the labour movement must be ready to respond to any sectarian attacks, any more killings, with mass protest action and the setting up of defence committees to mobilise working class areas to jointly provide their own defence.
The RUC is seen by Catholics as a sectarian force and remains unacceptable in Catholic working class areas. Its heavy-handed tactics in Protestant areas have also caused resentment and alienated a significant section of the population.
The paramilitary alternative of kneecappings, breaking limbs and other forms of summary ‘justice’ are not acceptable. It means that people’s fate is decided in secret by unaccountable people, and punishment is carried out without any right of redress.
Instead the labour movement should campaign for the establishment of genuine community police forces under the democratic control of policing committees elected from the trade unions and community organisations, and with all appointments vetted to exclude sectarians of all hues.
There is no denying that the national question is the most divisive, most difficult issue of ail. The two communities, and the two sections of the working class tend to look in two different directions on this issue.
This has not been because unity is impossible on the issue, but because the limited choices which have been raised in the past have alienated one or other community.
The maintenance of the existing link with Britain, or worse the setting up of an independent Ulster, are unacceptable choices for Catholics, especially for the Catholic working class.
On the other hand Protestants will not put their heads into what they see as the green noose of a capitalist united Ireland. They fear that they would end up being underdogs just as the Catholics were underdogs in the state ruled by the Unionist elite.
Protestant workers are justified in their fears. Just as the British ruling class in the past played the orange card – and may do so again in the future if faced with the threat of socialism – so their Southern Irish counterparts have not hesitated to use the green card, as a section of them did in 1969, to the same end of dividing the working class. In a capitalist united Ireland they would be quite prepared to whip up anti-protestant feeling if they felt this would keep the working class apart and preserve their rule.
Since partition the leaders of the labour movement in Ireland and Britain have tended only to see these capitalist choices. With only these on offer it is not surprising that this issue tends to divide workers. Socialists should reject all these alternatives – the status quo, Ulster independence and a capitalist united Ireland – with equal forcefulness.
The way to resolve the national problem is through the building of class unity in the North, unity with the working class in Britain and with the working class in the South, and the brining together as far as is possible, the struggle for socialism throughout these islands.
The working class in the South can best assist this unity by breaking its organisations out of the embrace of coalition with the capitalist parties, whether Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, and fighting independently for socialism. Likewise the best help the British working class can give is to shake up the labour movement in Britain and fight to overthrow British capitalism.
Paisley is threatening a unionist forum to unite all unionist groups. This is in response to the nationalist Forum for Peace and Reconciliation set up by Reynolds. The working class organisations, North and South and in Britain should have no truck with these unionist and nationalist blocs. Instead they should set up a ‘Labour Movement Forum’ to draw together all the organisations of the working class in Ireland to fight for a common solution. There is no capitalist answer to the national problem. The only solution is the overthrow of capitalism, North, South and in Britain and the establishment of a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland, entered into on a free and equal basis.
Socialism would allow for a democratic and peaceful resolution of the problem. The enemies of socialism will say no – look at what happened in Russia where the various national questions were brutally repressed, not resolved.
What existed, and what failed, in Russia and Eastern Europe was Stalinism, not socialism, but what is now failing in every corner of the world is the capitalist system which delivers up only poverty, pollution, wars and devastation.
Capitalism means investment and production only for profit, not for need. Socialism means taking the resources of the world into public ownership and letting the mass of the people decide democratically how they are to be used. It would allow people’s needs to be the priority not the super-enrichment of the few. It does not mean a one party state, totalitarianism or control by privileged bureaucrats as were the hallmarks of Stalinist regimes. Rather it would involve the maximum decentralisation of power and the maximum participation of the working class, the great majority in society, in the running of society.
By scrapping the wastage of capitalism on weapons, on wars, on advertising, on building goods designed to fall apart, and by giving work to the millions made idle by this system, it would be possible to eliminate want and begin to give every human being a decent standard of living. It would also be possible to drastically cut the working week, perhaps to a few hours per day and three or four days a week, and still produce enough to satisfy human needs.
A cut in hours would give the working class the essential ingredient of time to take part in the running of society. For the first time since the break up of the earliest human societies, the majority of the people, not an elite, would be able to democratically shape their own destiny.
Even in the early stages of the building of such a society disputes and conflicts which have seemed all absorbing in the past would no longer have the same significance. Socialism in Ireland would very quickly see the passions which today surround the national question abate. A socialist society would mean that the rights of all minorities would be guaranteed, including refugees and immigrants. In Ireland this would mean the rights of all religions to practice their beliefs, but with the complete separation of church and state.
Nor could there be any question of one community or one section of the working class coercing the other to accept its will. At the start of the Troubles, Militant advocated a socialist united Ireland. Protestant and Catholic workers at that time could see that this represented something completely different from the capitalist solutions posed by Unionists and Nationalists
While retaining this general position twenty five years of violence, especially the IRA campaign which Protestants saw as an attempt to coerce them against their will and their current fears that they are about to be ‘sold out’, require us to make a qualification.
Should Protestants remain suspicious or opposed to an all Ireland state, even on a socialist basis, their views would be respected. In practice this would mean their right, for so long as they wished, to opt either for maximum control over their own affairs or even for a separate socialist state. Neither autonomy for Protestants, nor a separate state are desirable, but if they become necessary, socialism would mean they could be implemented without the bloodshed or upheaval inevitable under capitalism.
Two socialist states in Ireland, should this arise, would not mean the rigid division between peoples, as would be the case with two capitalist states. Socialism means open borders and the free movement of peoples. Rather than a powerful central state, lifted above society, it means the devolution of administrative responsibility to the maximum possible extent to local communities. Nor would it mean coercing Catholics into a new Northern state against their will. Just as Protestants cannot be coerced into a united Ireland, so Catholics cannot be coerced into a majority Protestant state. The resulting rearrangement of boundaries might be cumbersome but, on the basis of socialism, it would be possible and could be arrived at peacefully and democratically.
However this is not the best option. Protestant and Catholic working class people in Northern Ireland have far more in common than divides them. Far better that workers’ unity is built in the North and between workers North and South to tear down capitalism and all its political vestiges and build one socialist society in Ireland, than to go down the road of continued separation by religion and of two states.
The future development of a united class movement, which would rush sectarian tensions to the background will likely mean that Protestant objections to a single socialist state would disappear – but in order to build this class unity it is now necessary to guarantee the Protestant working class their right, should they wish to exercise it, to opt out.
The Socialist Party (formerly the Militant Labour) is a socialist organisation which is active and has support in both Catholic and Protestant working class areas and which is struggling to build support for these ideas. It was formed at the beginning of 1993 through the merger of Militant, the Labour and Trade Union Group and the Young Socialists into one organisation. In 1997 the name was changed to the Socialist Party, and we had a TD (MP), Joe Higgins, elected to the Southern Dail. He is still a sitting TD from the working class constituency of Dublin West. In line with our public representative rules, Joe only draws an average workers’ wage, the rest of his salary being donated to various campaigns.
Part of a worldwide revolutionary socialist International (the Committee for a Workers’ International – CWI) which has a base in over 35 countries, and on every continent, the Socialist Party is the most dynamic socialist force in Ireland.
For more than twenty years we have correctly analysed the situation and have consistently argued, against what at times seemed overwhelming odds, for working class unity and socialism as the only way forward. Unlike the leaders of the labour movement who preached reliance on the capitalist state to solve the problem, we argued that the working class, as the people who suffered the effects of the Troubles, were the only force that could solve them.
Unlike other left groups, who, when it was fashionable in Britain and in Catholic areas of the North to back the IRA acting as unofficial cheerleaders for the Provisionals, we explained more than twenty years ago that the IRA campaign would not succeed. A headline in the first ever issue of Irish Militant, published at the time of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 ran Provisional IRA Strategy Will Not Defeat Imperialism.
Our ideas have stood the test of time. The back page headline of that same issue ran One Answer – Workers Unity. That was true then and it is true today. The difference is that in 1972 the prospects for the immediate building of a united working class movement were quite slender and were shrinking.
With the ending of the IRA campaign and with the UDA and UVF ceasefires, a new situation has opened. There is now real scope for the ideas of mass struggle as opposed to individual terrorism, class unity as opposed to sectarianism. By joining and helping to build the Socialist Party those who agree with the ideas put forward in this booklet can help transform them from words on a page into a mass force of workers and youth struggling to change society.
Last updated: 31.12.2010