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Peter Hadden

Rebuilding class unity

(September 1996)

From The Militant [UK], 27 September 1996.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

During this, the most turbulent summer for years, Northern Ireland tottered on the edge of a sectarian abyss and then pulled back.

In the Drumcree incident in Portadown in July, the RUC police force and British government allowed a march of the Protestant Orange Order to pass through a Catholic area and turned on the local Catholic population.

This created a highly charged and extremely polarised situation which had the potential of over-spilling out of control. Catholics were enraged at what happened in Drumcree and then in Derry and the Ormeau Road, Belfast in the days which followed. Protestants, already suspicious that talk of re-routing parades was the thin end of a broad nationalist agenda, became enraged at the boycotts and widespread attempts to have further parades blocked.

On both sides there were those who were prepared to go down the road of confrontation on these questions, even at the cost of all-out sectarian conflict. This did not happen because in the working-class communities, Catholic and Protestant, there was an underlying feeling that things were getting out of hand and that the parades issue should be dealt with through dialogue, not confrontation.

During this period Militant Labour did not bend to the sectarian pressures from either side. We recognised that there were two rights at issue, the right to parade, but also the right of residents not to have to put up with parades to which they objected and not to be corralled into their areas by the RUC.

Beyond these we pointed to a greater right – the right of the working class as a whole not to be dragged towards civil war by the refusal of either side to compromise. In the end it was the mood for compromise and agreement which just about won through. Now we have to assess the damage which has been done.

The atmosphere is now less charged but the polarisation remains. We may not have the tit- for-tat killings of the past but we have tit-for-tat boycotts and blockades.

Hundreds of families have moved from their homes, either through direct intimidation or through fear. The whole parades issue has reinforced the notion that not just estates but even towns and villages are either “nationalist” or “unionist”.

Sections of the ruling class have talked despairingly of resolving the issues through cantonisation, the splitting of Northern Ireland into small semi-autonomous areas, supposedly all “Protestant” or all “Catholic”, and re-division. A step has been taken along that road.

According to the government the multi-party talks which reconvened on 9 September represent the best way out of this. There is not much comfort to be taken from this.

Before the summer recess the talks were bogged down in quite petty points of procedure. Having reconvened there is now the huge difficulty of agreeing an agenda, because this means agreeing how and at what point the decommissioning issue will be tackled. And if this hurdle can be overcome the real issues of prisoners, policing, new institutional arrangements and the constitutional question all have to be faced.

Meanwhile the whole process is flawed because Sinn Fein, despite its 15.5% of the vote, is excluded. In and around the talks, Paisley’s DUP have argued that no agreement will hold which does not have their consent. Yet they and other unionist parties refuse to support Sinn Fein’s entry to the talks; they fail to apply the same yardstick in that case. It may be that a new IRA ceasefire in October or November will unlock this particular door. Sinn Fein has been dismissive of the talks but Gerry Adams has indicated that they would still be prepared to take part on the basis that “the talks would be different if Sinn Fein was in there”.

But even with Sinn Fein at the talks it would be wrong to place any real hope on this process. The talks could come to pieces at any time. A further series of events like Drumcree would finish them. Then in the absence of any initiative by the genuine organisations of the working class to offer a non-sectarian, socialist alternative, a grim scenario might open up.

Or the talks might stumble on towards some deal brokered mainly by the Catholic-based SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. This would not be a lasting solution. The sectarian divide would remain and could even be reinforced by such a pact between sectarians.

A temporary deal on the constitution and on North/South links would be no final settlement of the national question. Unionists would present any change as a necessary minimum to win the allegiance of the Catholic minority to the State and thus guarantee the Union.

Nationalists would sell it as the first instalment of a step-by-step approach to a united Ireland. Meanwhile the poverty and unemployment would remain, as would the attacks on working conditions and on services, no matter which of the present parties rules at Westminster. The anger and discontent bred out of poverty will inexorably gnaw away at the basis of any deal.

Unless an agreement is accompanied by steps to a real solution it will ultimately give way to renewed violence, possibly to civil war, just as years of power-sharing in Cyprus ended in partition while in the Lebanon power-sharing was followed by a decade of civil war.

A real solution must be built from the bottom up, not from the top of society down. Instead of unity between the sectarians and reactionaries who misrepresent the working class, we need unity on the ground, in the workplaces and in the communities.

The basis for this consists in the trade unions and in community organisations, especially those who have built up cross-community links. Postal workers have shown that shop floor unity and solidarity is still intact. At community level there have been many initiatives to hold things together.

When sectarian fighting took place on the Limestone Road in Belfast in September and politicians descended on the area to plead the case of one or other “side”, there were efforts from within the communities to meet together to try to resolve the differences and provide security for all.

This is the type of initiative which can be built upon. With the recently elected Forum a discredited Unionist talking shop, there is a case for an initiative to set up an alternative “Workers’ Forum” made up of representatives of trade unionists, community organisations, women’s and youth groups, plus those political groups which want to participate. Already there are in existence groups like the Labour Coalition and the Women’s Coalition who could play an important role.

Ultimately the aim must be to transform the nature of politics in Northern Ireland. The major parties, unionist and nationalist, around the talks table have a single sectarian agenda; they want the working class to remain weak and divided.

Whether or not these parties cobble together a deal, the real answers lie elsewhere and will be found by building a new working-class party to challenge the politics of “everything Orange” on one side versus “everything Green” on the other.

The building of a new united movement of the working class, and alongside this a new working-class party, is a matter of urgency whatever is decided in the talks at Castle Buildings.

If there is no deal and the talks collapse, the working class will need to exercise its united power and present a political alternative. Otherwise the sectarians and reactionaries who came to the fore over the summer will fill the vacuum. If, on the other hand, there is eventually a deal and some new Assembly is set up, the working class will need a political voice to challenge the domination and control of the main parties within it.

The way to a lasting solution is by building on the unity of the working class in the North, by linking up with the struggles of working people in the South and in Britain.

The only “agreed” Ireland which can have the consent of all sections of the working class is a socialist Ireland. Likewise the only link with Britain which can have similar consent is the link with a socialist Britain.

A new working-class organisation campaigning for a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland could inspire the working class, Catholic and Protestant, to defeat the sectarian enemies, Orange and Green.

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