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Peter Hadden

Lift all threats – Stop all attacks

(February 2002)

From Socialist Voice,, No. 44, February 2002.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

January 18th was an historic day in Northern Ireland. In Belfast and in other centres across the north tens of thousands turned out in support of the trade union protests against the sectarian threats and attacks.

The 80,000 who turned out in Belfast made this bigger than any of the previous rallies called by the unions against sectarianism and one of the biggest trade union demonstrations ever held in Northern Ireland. Another 15,000–20,000 attended the rallies outside Belfast.

One reason for the turnout was the seriousness of the situation. Few people now need convinced that the sectarian polarisation has worsened over recent years – or that the mounting sectarian violence could quite easily overspill into a much worse conflict.

In the weeks leading up to the trade union rallies there were the nightly clashes at the interfaces, especially in north Belfast. There were also an increasing number of attacks on Fire-Fighters, bus drivers, ambulance personnel and others providing services to the areas.

Then came the attacks on school students travelling from school and on teachers cars in north Belfast. This was followed by the threat to Catholic staff working in schools, a clear attempt by the UDA to force some Catholic schools in Protestant areas to close.

For many the brutal murder of Daniel McColgan was the last straw. Postal workers showed the way when they immediately responded by stopping work. Their strike was later extended until the UDA/RHD threat to postal workers was lifted. Their action and the fact that it got results encouraged other workers and made them determined to stand up to the sectarian threats and to the attacks.

Another reason for the size of the rallies was the fact that this time the unions had acted on their own. Previous calls for demonstrations had often been softened by the fact that they had been made in conjunction with the employers, the churches and others. This made people less likely to attend.

This time the clear call for a general strike made it seem that the union leadership meant business and workers took the whole thing more seriously. Unfortunately no sooner was this call made than the same leaders who had issued it began to back off from it. The result was that many workers did not receive clear instructions to stop work and were left confused as to what they should do.

There were even cases where union officials negotiated agreements with employers that token delegations would go to the rallies rather than the whole workforce. Had the original twelve hour stoppage call been firmly kept to the rallies would have been even bigger.

Still, what did take place is a potential turning point in Northern Ireland. Throughout the “peace process” the initiative has been with the sectarians, the paramilitaries and the sectarian politicians. Although the vast majority of working class people were appalled by the deepening sectarian division they could see no alternative.

Workers now have more confidence that they can do something. People who felt isolated have seen that there are tens of thousands of others who think like them. They have also had a taste of the enormous power they can have if they stand together.

An immediate effect has been to bring more people into activity in the unions. As we report elsewhere on this page activists are now taking steps to establish or re-establish Trades Councils in a number of areas where such bodies have long been dormant.

Another effect will be to increase appetite of workers for struggle – on social and economic issues as well as against sectarianism. For years the trade union movement has been on the back foot with a timid and compliant leadership that spent more time discouraging struggles than promoting the interests of their members.

Now workers have seen that strike action is possible and that strikes succeed. And if strikes are effective against paramilitaries why not against the employers? Why not against Hospital closures or against privatisation and the other attacks on services being introduced by the Ministers in the Executive?

After January 18th the working class have the initiative – at least for a while. The rallies did not end the attacks or the threats but they did halt the sectarian momentum that had been gathering pace. Apart from a number of vicious attacks in the days immediately following the rallies in the Whitewell area of Belfast in the next few weeks the interfaces were quieter than they have been for some time.

This does not mean that anything has been solved, that the threats and attacks have stopped completely, or that the violence will not re-erupt. But it does mean that there is now an opportunity to build on January 18th and to launch a campaign that could be successful in isolating the bigots.

Threats or attacks whether from loyalist or republican groups, should be answered in the same way that postal workers responded to the UDA/RHD threat. Strikes and mass protests can help isolate the paramilitaries and force them back.

But these actions need to be followed up with initiatives in the communities. Local union representatives of postal workers, fire-fighters, health workers, school staff and others who provide services to the communities or who are under threat should meet with genuine community representatives to discuss how to ensure that all threats are lifted and that the day to day attacks on workers are stopped.

In one interface area – the Manor Street district of north Belfast – community activists have already taken an initiative calling a mass meeting of people in the district with trade union speakers invited to discuss these questions.

If this were repeated in other areas the communities could be mobilised to stand along side those who work or provide services to the areas to stop what is now taking place. Committees representing local union and community representatives could be set up from these meetings to keep the campaigns going and to respond to any further attacks or threats.

And if this were done on both sides of the peace lines it would be possible to link up these campaigns to try to put a stop to the sectarian fighting across the interfaces.

To do this successfully the lesson of the January 18th rallies that action is most effective when it is conducted by trade unions and community activists independently of the politicians or employers.

Local councillors and other representatives of the sectarian parties would no doubt try to intervene in the any anti sectarian initiatives taken by the unions or communities. Their role would only be to try to keep people divided, campaigning only against attacks on “our” community. If effective campaigns are to be built the sectarian parties should be kept at a distance.

An ongoing campaign against sectarianism needs to tackle the poverty that is at the root of the problem. It is not possible to do this hand in hand with political parties whose Ministers in the Assembly are introducing policies of privatisation and cuts in services that are making conditions in the working class areas even worse.

These parties use their influence to maintain the sectarian divide. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. So long as they maintain their stranglehold over political life so long the problem will continue and worsen. And so long as they are not seriously challenged in elections so long their stranglehold will be maintained.

January 18th showed not just that workers can stand up against the thugs, it showed where the basis for an alternative to right wing sectarian politics could come from. If 100,000 can unite on the streets why could they, and many more like them, unite at the polls?

A new working class party based on the unions and genuine community organisations and committed to fighting for socialist policies could start to eliminate sectarianism and lay the basis for a real and lasting solution.

January 18th dealt a stunning blow against the paramilitaries and the sectarian politicians. The key now is to follow this with further action before these people launch a counter offensive to recover the ground they have lost.

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Last updated: 24 September 2020