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Peter Hadden

Towards Division Not Peace

Can a Socialist Alternative Be Built?


The period since the late 1980s has been one of general setback and retreat for the working class movement on an international scale. There has been a decline in the levels of struggle and a general throwback of consciousness.

The fact that in a period of acute social crisis the working class has not been able stamp its influence on events has allowed other forces to fill the vacuum. As a result in many countries history has charted a peculiar course and the anger of the working class and the oppressed has found a variety of expressions. This has particularly been the case in areas where the situation is complicated by the national question.

In Northern Ireland the retreat of the workers movement has expressed itself in the aggravation of the national question and in the deepening sectarian polarisation. What has happened represents a defeat for the working class. It is not a crushing defeat on the scale of that suffered in 1933 in Germany or in 1973 in Chile.

Nonetheless the movement has been thrown back. The working class no longer has a political party of its own. The trade union tops have become largely incorporated in the state. The shop stewards movement has declined and its confidence has been dashed.

Much of the authority that the trade unions once enjoyed in working class areas has evaporated. It exists to some extent among the older generation but as far as the youth are concerned it is something that has to be re-earned. This means for example that the idea that the unions could intervene on issues like parades or policing to uphold working class interests is not accepted as it once was.

The unions, and the working class movement generally, are less equipped to intervene and provide an alternative to sectarianism than at any time during the Troubles. This situation can be turned round. Ground that has been lost can be recovered. New struggles can restore much of the confidence that has gone.

Class struggle can also cast a new light on the sectarian parties and the paramilitaries, opening rifts within them and loosening their grip on working class areas. Above all a new wave of struggle can throw up a fresh layer of shop stewards and other activists who can carry class ideas into the workplaces and working class estates.

Such a recovery requires two things. Firstly it will take events: big class battles on jobs, wages, privatization or other issues will be needed to forge a new generation of activists and to allow the working class to think in different terms than nationalism and unionism.

A Drawn Out Process

If it were likely that there would be a rapid descent to sectarian civil war the outlook would be difficult given the throwing back of class-consciousness and the weakening of the shop steward layer that has taken place. Fortunately this is not the most likely perspective. It is more probable that the conflict will have a drawn out character and this will provide the working class movement with the precious ingredient of time to allow some of the past wounds to heal and to prepare for a new offensive.

Elements of civil war are already present in the situation, in the fighting at the “interfaces” and in the nightly sectarian intimidation and attacks. This is of a low intensity character, a trickle of sectarian lava that most people can sidestep and not yet a pyroclastic cloud that engulfs all before it. We are still a long way from what happened in the Lebanon or Bosnia.

While the unmistakable direction of events has been towards deepening sectarian conflict and ultimately civil war this has had and is likely still to have a drawn out and protracted character. A common feature to what happened in Bosnia and the Lebanon was that the central state collapsed. In Bosnia the trigger was the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. In the Lebanon the power sharing arrangements between Christians and Muslims that had existed for decades, but which no longer reflected the population balance, came apart.

Ethnically based armed militias fighting for territory filled the vacuum of central authority in both cases. In Northern Ireland the state, especially since 1969, is the British state. The “armed bodies of men” who defend the interests of the ruling class are under the direct control of Westminster. Their actions are determined by the interests of the British ruling class and not directly by the interests of either unionism or nationalism.

This is a decisive difference. The British ruling class do not want to see the situation overspill to a sectarian civil war which would destabilize Ireland and which would have massive repercussions in Scotland and among the huge Irish communities in every major British city.

For them the best defence against the sectarian unravelling of the whole situation is political rather than military. Hence their efforts to bolster the faltering peace process and to continuously prop up the sagging political arrangements. But when politics fail, when negotiations over disputed issues break down into confrontation – as is more and more the case – they are prepared to commit considerable resources to ensure that a Drumcree style line of military containment is held.

Through a policy of containment and with constant efforts to achieve some political deal the ruling class can play a role in regulating the sectarian war. The effect is not to resolve anything or even to diminish the conflict but merely to stretch it out over a prolonged period.

So long as the violence is relatively sporadic and the issues that provoke confrontations are relatively isolated the state can position itself between the two sides and hold a line. There is likely to be a long drawn out process that will see confrontations, moves to agreement, even periods where the whole thing seems to have settled down only to be followed by new upheavals.

Containment, even containment over a protracted period, should not be mistaken for a solution. Military methods to patch up the gaps in the political process may keep the violence at a sporadic level but they can no more eliminate it today than they were able to do over the thirty years of the Troubles.

Even this is not guaranteed. The army and policy can hold a line of sorts so long as the conflict is confined to a few areas and has a low intensity character. Should it become more generalized they would very quickly be stretched beyond capacity. During the Drumcree crises in 1996 and 1997 they came within a whisker of this. Again this summer (2001) they were able to keep only a partial lid on the fighting in North Belfast and would have been impotent if this had spread to other areas.

In the long run, if the sectarian polarization increases and the violence intensifies, the state will be incapable of preventing civil war. At a certain point they would probably be able to do no more than ring fence whole areas and act as a buffer along the new lines of division that civil war would create.

While there is no ground for complacency given the volatile and uncertain situation it still remains the most likely perspective that events will take a somewhat protracted course. The working class will have time to recover from the blows it received in the late 1980s and especially through the 1990s. In turn a development in class-consciousness and a recovery in the confidence and combativeness of the working class would create more sluggish terrain for sectarian ideas and sectarian organisations.

Changed World Situation

Future events in Northern Ireland will unfold against a very different world background than that of the 1990s. The ideological offensive by the apologists for capitalism that was aimed at further disorientating the working class after the collapse of Stalinism has run into the sand. The “free” market system that was declared triumphant is teetering into recession. September 11th has been a turning point in world relations bringing centre stage the violent and unstable world that this system has created. The “new world order” has undisputedly become the “new world disorder”.

And after a prolonged period of relative quiescence the mighty giant of organized labour is beginning to stir again. It would be an exaggeration to say that the working class has already moved decisively into action. The peculiar and distorted course taken by events in the neocolonial world reflects, on the one side, the anger of the masses at the effects of more than a decade of neoliberal “free market” policies and, on the other hand, the fact the working class still does not appear able to offer an alternative way out.

But this is now beginning to change. A new period of radicalisation is opening. In this period the ideas of “struggle” and “socialism” that the rulers of the world, during the 1990s, tried to place in the same grave as “history” will come back onto the agenda, probably with a vengeance. Just as the 1990s acted as a drag on the working class movement in Northern Ireland – and boosted sectarian reaction – so a changed world situation will have the opposite effect.

Youth Revolt

The revolt of the youth against the institutions and effects of global capitalism that began in Seattle at the end of the 1990s was the first sign of a more radical period. While workers have been involved in the sizeable trade union contingents on some of the anti-capitalist protests in the main this has been a movement of sections of the middle class youth and intelligentsia who have begun to shake off the ideological debris left by the collapse of Stalinism and the 1990s boom.

During the 1990s opposition to the effects of globalization concentrated on single issues. Seeing no alternative to the market the youth held back from more general conclusions. Now, at the very least, an anti capitalist, if not yet a socialist, consciousness has developed. The tens of thousands who have been involved in the mass demonstrations and the many more who have been affected by these protests have moved towards the idea that capitalism does not work. This in and of itself poses the question – what alternative is there to this failed system.

These events have drawn the attention of an important layer of the youth in Northern Ireland. Although the attempts to organize similar protests have been quite small and dominated by the infantile antics of the SWP and other ultra lefts, the outlook of a much broader section of the youth has been affected by these international developments.

Whether consciously or unconsciously many of these youth have turned away from local politics, seeing only what seems to be a never-ending sectarian conflict. They have focused instead on the radical ideas that are beginning to surface internationally. The fact that they completely recoil from what is happening around them means that, dialectically, they are more prepared to draw far-reaching conclusions from world events. For the first time in more than a decade an important section of the youth are wide open to the ideas of Marxism.

This is why the decision, taken just over twelve months ago, to launch Socialist Youth was such a timely initiative for our party. Socialist Youth has been able very successfully to tap into the layer of youth who will come to meetings on topics like “Globalisation” or “Che Guevara” but who, at this stage, would not be attracted by subjects like “sectarianism” or the “peace process”

As is the case internationally this is in the main this is a middle class layer. Working class youth live closer to the conflict and find it more difficult to duck either its physical effects or the prejudices that go with it. Nonetheless this is a very important development.

New Workers Movements

The worldwide radicalisation of this layer of youth is the first indication of the beginnings of a shift to the left within society. As Trotsky once commented, the wind tends to blow the tops of the trees first. The stirrings among students and school students are a portent of the much bigger movements of the working class that lie ahead.

Already the outlines of these movements are visible, albeit still faintly in some countries. In Latin America the last two years have seen a series of strikes, general strikes and even insurrectionary movements. Earlier this year the Greek working class gave a vivid demonstration of their power in what was one of the most solid and successful general strikes since the movement that followed the fall of the Junta in 1974.

And while the core of the anti capitalist movement worldwide have been the youth, the 300,000 strong protest against the G8 summit that was held in Genoa in July 2001 was overwhelmingly a workers demonstration. This reflected the more advanced state of the class movement in Italy and also the existence of the PRC (Communist Refoundation Party), a party that defied the 1990s by maintaining a left reformist program and a significant base of support among the working class.

The opposition to Bush and Blair’s war against Afghanistan drew in many of those who had been involved in the anti capitalist movement and has consequently begun on a higher level than the campaigns against the Gulf war and the bombing of Serbia. Again this was mainly a movement of the youth.

The degree of opposition varied country to country. In the ex-colonial countries there was deep hostility to Imperialism. In the advanced countries the situation varied but the working class, while increasingly sceptical, generally held back from the protests. Again Italy, in part because of the role of the PRC, was somewhat of an exception. Just weeks after the bombing began a huge demonstration of 500,000 voiced their opposition.

These are all indications of the beginnings of what will be a new upturn in the class struggle. It is impossible to measure precisely in advance how this movement will be affected by the recession that is now beginning. Most likely this will also vary although the general effect could be to stun the working class for a period, especially if the downturn is particularly sharp. Even if this should happen there are certain to be defensive battles – especially against closures and redundancies – and many of these are likely to be bitter in character.

Political Conclusions

Over time a new generation of activists will be tutored in this harsher school of class struggle. These will come into conflict with the current leaderships of the trade unions who have accommodated themselves to the capitalist system. They will also come into opposition to the current class collaborationist mantra of this leadership – the idea of “social partnership”.

Fundamentally it is events that shape and reshape consciousness. In particular the working class draws conclusions primarily from experience. The experience not just of struggle, but of bitter struggle that openly exposes the true class nature of society and which takes place against the background of the period of instability and upheaval signalled by September 11th, will most certainly have a profound impact on consciousness.

The working class, starting with the more active class conscious layer, will begin to draw conclusions not just about the need to struggle but about the need to take political as well as industrial action. In the class war, as in any war, ground that was previously conquered sometimes has to be recaptured. Before the setbacks of the late 1980s and 1990s the idea that the working class needed its own political parties independent of and in opposition to the parties of the establishment, was broadly understood, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries.

The downturn in the class struggle, the falling back of consciousness and the shift to the right on the part of the leadership of the industrial and political organizations of the working class, means that this lesson has largely been erased. A new period of heightened class conflict, of victories, but also of defeats that seem to bar a way forward by industrial means, will once again direct workers towards a political road.

New broad working class parties are likely to emerge in the next period. The first steps towards their formation may be confused and tentative. They may not initially have a socialist program. But the pressures of the class struggle will tell and the ideas of left reformism that, with a few notable exceptions have not had any mass base of support for more than a decade, will emerge within them.

Class Unity

Just as the world movement of youth against globalization and against capitalism had an impact among sections of the youth in Northern Ireland, so the even more striking industrial and political movements of the working class internationally that lie ahead will have a huge effect on workers. Events internationally will leave their mark but the most particular impact will be from a revival of the class struggle and the re-emergence of the ideas of socialism among the working class in Britain and the south.

This does not mean that the working class movement in the north will necessarily trail in the wake of the movement in Britain, the south or internationally. The same factors that are beginning to reinvigorate the class struggle across Europe also apply in the north. Historically the working class movement in Northern Ireland, precisely because of the sharpness of the political situation, has had a tendency to move more explosively and to draw conclusions more quickly than workers in other northern European countries.

The working class in the north, because they have been partially paralysed by sectarianism, can set out from a starting point behind the movement elsewhere. Events outside can act as an initial inspiration and a spur, but then, in part because of the need to counter the threat posed by sectarianism, the movement in the north can be thrust into the front line of the class struggle.

Even in the present very difficult situation the outlines of what can happen in the future are visible, even if not always clearly. While sectarianism has weighed down the workers movement and while the shift to the right has deprived it of leadership, the effect has been to numb the movement rather than atomise it.

Basically the working class movement is anaesthetized but intact. Inevitably the increased polarization has penetrated the workplaces to some extent and recent surveys have shown this to be an increasing problem. However the underlining unity of the working class at the place of work has not been broken. And when class issues have come to the fore this unity has time and again overridden the sectarianism and isolated those who promote it.

Society in Northern Ireland is covered with a disfiguring sectarian mask that hides everything that is not directly related to the conflict. But behind this there is massive discontent and seething class anger. We have brought this to the surface in the support for the activities of the End Low Pay Campaign. The response to the “name and shame” tactic shows a hatred of employers that is fed, not just on low pay, but on long hours, ill treatment and lack of conditions, and which runs very deep.

But it has been the issue of Health cuts, especially the threat to cut acute facilities from local hospitals. that has sparked the biggest opposition. The explosive movements that have developed in defence of hospital services have given a glimpse of what can happen in the future when the working class regains confidence and moves more decisively into struggle.

Recent years have seen huge demonstrations in Downpatrick and Dungannon opposing the threat to acute services in the local hospitals. One immense demonstration of 50,000 in Downpatrick mobilized virtually the entire active community in the Down area.

In some senses the more recent demonstration, of 20,000 in Omagh in October 2001, was even more impressive. The Downpatrick demonstrations were on a Saturday while the huge protest in Dungannon took place on a weekday but after working hours. But the Omagh demonstration was on a Monday lunchtime.

Hospital workers marched to the town centre rally. Other workplaces did the same, some in direct defiance of their employers who tried to restrict their attendance. The demonstration – the largest in the history of Omagh – had some of the features of a general strike.

Anti-Sectarian Movements

There have not been major movements against sectarianism or for an end to violence since the big demonstrations against the breaking of the IRA ceasefire with the bombing of Canary Wharf at the start of 1997. There have however been indications that the potential for such movements is still there.

To acknowledge this is not to deny the increased polarization or the fact that this rise in sectarianism has seeped into the consciousness of the working class. To understand consciousness we have to deal, not in fixed categories, but with contradictions and processes. The same workers who now stand poles apart on issues like policing, parades, access to schools and the national question can stand together, not just on social and economic questions, but against sectarian violence and against a return to the Troubles.

During the summer of 2001 the UDA – under various titles – carried out two killings [1] that were brutally reminiscent of the sectarian assassinations that the vast majority of people, Catholic and Protestant, hoped had ended with the loyalist cease-fires. In both cases there was widespread revulsion, which, in the absence of any call for action by trade union or community leaders, showed itself in small incidents rather than mass protests.

When news reached his workmates in the F.G. Wilson factory that their teenage workmate, Ciaran Cummings, had been gunned down while standing at an Antrim roundabout waiting for a lift to work, they downed tools and went home. People from all parts of Antrim – Catholic and Protestant – turned up at the spot where he was killed with flowers and other tributes.

There was a similar mood of disgust when another teenager, Gavin Brett, a Protestant who was taken for a Catholic, was murdered in Glengormley, Again there were no organized protests – apart from a vigil held by members of our party and of Socialist Youth.

Nevertheless workers from the nearby Mallusk Royal Mail sorting office came out in small groups – an “almost demonstration” – and walked the few hundred yards to the scene of his murder. The call raised by us for a day of action to demand a halt to the killings was taken up by the media and was publicly echoed by one of Gavin’s uncles.


On the industrial front the working class has been pushed back but the capacity for action has not been eliminated. Figures for days lost due to strikes are at historically low levels. Nevertheless when there have been disputes there has also been solidarity and determination just as in earlier periods of greater militancy. The one-day strikes against British Telecom in 1999 and 2000 were an example – workers voted almost unanimously for a series of one-day strikes on issues of conditions and against the use of agency staff. When the strikes went ahead they were completely solid.

Fire fighters showed similar resolve when they were balloted for strike action over the threat to withdraw the Northern Ireland allowance. So overwhelming was the vote to strike that the employers backed off and the allowance was retained.

The suspension of two Royal Mail workers in Belfast in the run up to Christmas 2000 provoked a walkout that took both the management and the union completely by surprise. This was a spontaneous action. It took place because, with increased workloads and constant management harassment, one relatively minor incident was enough to ignite the anger of the workforce. The strike was completely solid and, when it spread from Belfast to the main sorting office at Mallusk, threatened to paralyse the Christmas mail.

A senior union official was sent from Scotland with one objective – to bring about a return to work. The local branch representatives by and large supported his intervention and argued that the strike should end. Without any leadership the workers were left angry but disorientated and, several stormy mass meetings later, agreed to go back to work.

The Royal Mail workers could have won an important victory but for the fact that the CWU leadership locally and nationally mounted a successful rescue operation for a management that was on the ropes. Instead of an outright victory there was a setback that dampened the mood for action for a period.

Role of Leadership

After years of defeats workers have less confidence that strikes can be won, certainly that they can be won without a massive struggle, and so the question of leadership has become more decisive than ever. Workers are generally cautious about taking action and are doubly cautious if they have no confidence in their union leadership.

This doesn’t mean that without leadership there will be no struggles. There is a limit to how far workers can be pushed before they are driven to fight, leadership or no leadership, as the action of the Royal Mail workers, and of the Montupet workforce in 1997, showed.

The working class will be forced by circumstances onto the road of struggle even against the resistance of right wing or worn out shop stewards and the union officialdom. But where there are militant and fighting shop stewards, even in a few workplaces, the process will be very much easier.

It is no coincidence that, in the majority of cases where disputes have taken place, and particularly where these have been fought through to a successful conclusion, there has been a left wing local leadership. In the case of the fire fighters the fact that the FBU has both a left regional leadership and strong local organization was a key factor in encouraging the membership to vote overwhelmingly for strike action.

Neither is it coincidental that a big proportion of the most determined disputes in the last two or three years have led or heavily influenced by Socialist Party members. The fact that a small party should be at the heart of such a high percentage of the struggles that have taken place indicates the current weakness of the left and the absence of any significant layer of shop stewards capable of playing a role independent of the trade union bureaucracy. On the other hand it illustrates the correctness of our ideas and methods and the effect that even a few individuals trained in these methods can have.

CWU members in British Telecom have a strong union branch whose key organizer is a member of the Socialist Party. As with the fire fighters the fact of a determined leadership was crucial in encouraging these workers to vote almost unanimously for strike action and for the solid turnout that eventually forced BT to back down.

Socialist Party members also played the key role in organizing disputes by social work staff involved in childcare in North and West Belfast and in Derry in 2000 over the demand for extra staff. Faced with impossible workloads these workers were angry but, at the outset, were also modest in their demands and their expectations.

Once the huge votes for strike came through and once they began to take action their determination increased and their sights were raised. What they might have settled for before the action was no longer enough. Both disputes ended not just in victory but in a settlement that was more than the original claim; an outcome entirely untypical of a period still characterized by setback and retreat.

Term Time Dispute

All the main features of industrial struggle in this complex period were present in a condensed form during the historic term time workers dispute. What erupted into the biggest industrial relations headache for the Assembly in its first period, and especially for the Sinn Fein Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, began on a small scale when one term time worker brought a complaint about not being paid for school holiday periods to the branch officers of the South Eastern Education and Library Board branch of NIPSA.

The officers, who are members of the Socialist Party, took the issue up. Term time workers were consulted and came up with a claim for the payment of a retainer fee to cover holiday periods. This led to a protracted and bitter dispute involving regular protests, lobbies, pickets and demonstrations all of which attracted considerable press attention.

The dispute spread across the five Education and Library Boards but the epicentre was the South Eastern Board where the Socialist Party led NIPSA branch was strongest. In other Boards union organization was at a low level in the schools. Some branches had right wing officers who did all they could to obstruct the moves towards industrial action.

Term time workers across all the Boards, on the other hand, responded enthusiastically. Many of them had not even considered joining a union let alone going on strike, but when they at last saw the union doing something there was a flood of recruits. This was especially so in the South Eastern Board where there was the strongest leadership. By the end of the dispute the South Eastern NIPSA branch had more term time workers than the other four Boards put together.

In some of the other branches right wing officers who did not want a flood of militant term time workers challenging them in their own domains played an obstructive role from the start. They were not alone. The right wing leadership, including the full time officials responsible for the dispute, also did all they could to stop the term time workers taking industrial action.

The NIPSA leadership initially turned down demands for a ballot. Instead senior NIPSA officials, along with officials from UNISON and other unions conducted secret negotiations with Martin McGuinness’s Department. Behind the backs of the term time workers and their representatives they put their names to a shoddy deal – that the workers should accept their existing salary spread over twelve months. They assured the Department that all the “trouble” was the work of a few Socialist Party members who could be isolated and the deal sold.

Only a massive campaign within the union and among term time workers in all Boards, spearheaded by Socialist Party members, prevented this agreement going through and forced the union to ballot term time members on it. For a “yes” vote was Martin McGuinness and, in reality, the leadership of all the main unions involved. Against was the Socialist Party led South Eastern NIPSA branch. The result was a shattering rejection – across the whole of Northern Ireland only one person voted to accept the deal!

This was a turning point in the dispute. The term time workers had become a cause célèbre in NIPSA. Other branches rallied behind them against the union leadership. The June 2000 NIPSA conference was dominated by the dispute with speaker after speaker lambasting the platform for the role they had played. The call for a strike ballot could no longer be resisted.

Faced with the certainty that a ballot would result in a resounding “yes” for a strike that would close schools and cause a major crisis for the Assembly the employers capitulated. As with the disputes in child care the offer that was finally accepted went further than the original claim. Instead of a retainer fee, which might only been half pay, it offered staff the right to choose to switch from term time to full time contracts with full pay.

This was a huge victory achieved by a group of workers with no history of industrial militancy and scattered across dozens of workplaces. It was a victory that was only possible because Socialist Party members at the hub of the dispute in the South Eastern Board area were able to provide the direction that was needed.

The term time and other recent disputes are still very much the exception not the norm. They are isolated outposts of solidarity in a period in which the working class has still not recovered from the recent legacy of defeats. But all of them, above all the term time victory, had an impact on other workers, particularly those in the public sector. Since it ended other groups of public sector workers have either balloted for action or taken action, having seen that the way to get results is through struggle, not through the tame methods of the bureaucracy.

These are just the first signs of a revival of the class struggle. This process could be complicated by the recession that is now beginning to develop. As could happen internationally, a severe downturn could have a stunning effect, especially on workers in the private sector. But even if an offensive movement is delayed for a period there is the possibility of defensive battles over redundancies, closures or over attacks on wages and conditions.

Recession is likely to have less impact on public sector workers. Because the public sector is a relatively larger part of the economy and public sector workers are a bigger percentage of the total workforce, their struggles could play a critical role in helping the movement revive.

It is not possible to predict over what period or in what manner the movement will develop. It may be that it will have an abrupt and explosive character with one or two major battles rearranging the industrial landscape. Or it could be a much more long drawn out process with the working class, weighed down by the handicaps of a reluctant bureaucracy and by the effects of recession, being able only hesitatingly to regain its feet.


Whatever way it happens the period of relative class peace, of “partnership”, of the unions being largely incorporated in the capitalist state, will eventually be thrown into reverse. Recent struggles are the stirrings of the future. Inevitably those have put themselves to the forefront of these movements and who are an advanced guard of this future have met with resistance from those who represent the past; from the bureaucratic crustacean that formed at national and workplace level during the period of industrial inertia.

The basic instinct of all bureaucracies is self-preservation. Class-conscious activists with support among the union membership represent a fundamental threat to the perks and privileges that the top bureaucrats especially, but also the petty bureaucracies in the workplaces, have become accustomed to. In many unions and workplaces “partnership” has taken on a new meaning: not just sell out deals on wages and conditions but a union/management conspiracy to get rid of “troublesome” shop stewards and officials who, in the words of the former managing director of Shorts “don’t understand the modern role that trade unions have to play”.

A witch-hunting atmosphere has developed in many workplaces and in a number of unions. In some cases this has involved disciplinary action by management – with very often a large degree of union connivance. In other cases it has been the union bureaucracy who have taken disciplinary action against their own members – with the hand of employers and at times of the government visible in the background.

Most of the union officials who have not bowed deeply enough to the employers or the government have either been pulled into line or disciplined by the right wing bureaucracies. The two senior officials of the T&GWU, Mick O’Reilly and Eugene McGlone have been suspended on trumped up and quite ridiculous charges mainly because O’Reilly’s opposition to social partnership in the south upsets the relationship between the ICTU and the Irish government and also indirectly challenges the cosy rapport between the T&GWU and Tony Blair.

Joe Bowers, a full time officer for the MSF and a leading member of the Communist Party is facing dismissal by the right wing MSF leadership. This is part of a witch hunt of left officials that has been carried out in order to pave the way for a merger with the right wing led AEEU. Even more ominously there is clear evidence that part of the pressure to get rid of Bowers came from the management of Shorts who insisted that he should not be involved in any way in negotiations with their company.

Pressure also came from right wing shop stewards within the company. The union conveners in Shorts, some of whom have connections to the loyalist paramilitaries, now work closely with the management both in promoting the company and in developing “good” industrial relations.

Attacks on senior officials are very often a prelude to broader attacks on shop stewards and other activists who resist the trend to what is in effect company trade unionism. In Shorts the management and the senior union reps have also cooperated to victimise the branch officers of the MSF branch, the one union organisation in the factory to have stood against the attacks on conditions that were tamely accepted by others on the works committee.

Shorts is not only the largest employer in Northern Ireland, it is a company with a long history of strong and militant trade union organisation. It has been somewhat of a standard bearer of trade unionism in the north and what is happening is therefore a blow to workers in the rest of the private sector in particular.

The removal of the senior officials of the T&GWU, if this goes ahead, would also be a blow. Since Mick O’Reilly became its Irish regional secretary the T&GWU has stood out in the south as the main opponent of the national “partnership” agreements. In the north it has meant a certain opening up of the union although, to the bulk of the members, it has made little difference.

But the suspensions and threat of dismissal are not just an attack on two individuals. It is an attempt by the right wing leadership in Britain to clamp down on the left in the union. Already it has been accompanied by threats to other officials in the Belfast office, by an attack on the left led Regional Committee, and by attempts to restrict the rights of some individual activists.

Members in the north may not have noticed much difference when the O’Reilly/McGlone leadership took over but they would notice a clear difference if a new right wing leadership is installed. The former may have done very little to encourage a fight back against the employers, the latter would do all they can to discourage one.

There is no clearly defined front line to the class struggle particularly in this complex period. It doesn’t only take the form of a direct assault on the employers but is fought out within the organizations of the working class as well. In fact one of the sharpest edges of this struggle is within the trade unions between those who are trying to represent the interests of the working class and those who, in effect, act as agents of the employers.

In broader historical terms the witch-hunting actions of the right wing bureaucracy may be seen as Canute like gestures by those who represent things as they were in the 1990s and who are trying to resist events that are no longer flowing in their favour. In more immediate terms they can cause setbacks, can temporarily reinforce the dictatorship of Capital in the workplaces and can slow up the class struggle.

The attacks of the right can be successfully resisted but only by a counter offensive taking the issues to the membership. Right wing leaderships locally and nationally have no real basis among the members. More often than not they are viewed with deserved contempt. They retain their positions through membership inertia; because workers, even activists, who see no way of getting rid of them tend to lapse into activity or in some cases leave the union altogether.

As workers become more involved and more active so the grip of the right will loosen. Witch-hunting methods, if opposed properly, can have the opposite than intended effect by turning the membership against those who implement them – provided, that is, that correct tactics are used to resist them.

After the term time dispute, Eimear Duffy, a Socialist Party member now active in the right wing controlled Belfast Education branch, was sacked by management on a spurious pretext. There is evidence of collusion between at least one branch officer and management over this. The right wing branch officers responded to the sacking of a member of their branch committee by going to ground and were nowhere to be found for almost a week

It was left to Socialist Party members, along with other activists, to conduct a fight. They began to take the issue to the branch membership – and to other sections of NIPSA – calling for protests and also for a ballot on industrial action. Within days management had more or less completely backed down. This affair has seriously weakened the right wing in this important branch, opening the possibility that one or two individuals, who have become almost fossilized in their positions, could be unceremoniously thrown out.

Correct Tactics

This attempted witch-hunt backfired on its authors only because it was strenuously opposed. But where the left make serious mistakes the right wing can get away with their attacks and the movement can be weakened.

When the MSF branch in Shorts came under attack from the union bureaucracy and when it was faced with the prospect of merger with the AEEU, which had a right wing and compliant leadership in the factory, they took the decision that the best solution was to leave MSF and join the T&GWU. This was understandable under the circumstances but looking back it was probably counterproductive.

The MSF leadership accused the branch officers of organizing to undermine the union and were able to use this as evidence. Eventually the key organizers of the branch were stripped of their union positions. This was a pincer attack from the union and from management who followed up by derecognising them and then shifting some of them to areas of the factory where they would be unable to act even as unofficial organizers.

The coup de grace as far as the company and the bureaucracy are concerned may now be to include these key activists in the current redundancy package so that the rebellious MSF members are left completely leaderless. In the meantime the T&GWU took no steps to follow up on whatever steps may have been taken to sign up the MSF membership in the factory.

There are circumstances in which it is tactically correct to leave one union and join another. If, for example, all roads to change within the union are blocked and are likely to remain blocked for some time, or if there is a danger that the membership is no longer prepared to put up with the consequences of an undemocratic right wing regime and might vote with their feet and resign their membership, a sideways step into another union could possibly free things up and might be justified.

This is a risky manoeuvre – it could end in splitting the membership. If the least active and more conservative workers stayed in the old union it could reduce the influence of the more militant sections on them and make it more difficult to bring everyone out together in any future strike.

It is a manoeuvre that should only be undertaken when all the potential pitfalls are understood by the membership. They should be forewarned that joining another union is no panacea to solve their problems. The difficulties they encountered with the old bureaucracy they are likely to encounter again, to some extent at least, with the leadership strata of whatever other union they choose. There is no substitute for strong shop floor organization and no alternative to a campaign to democratize the unions around demands that all officials not only be elected but that they receive only the pay of the members they represent.

There are cases where a move from one union to another is justified. But in general the easiest and best course is to stay and fight. In Shorts the proposed merger with the AEEU could have been a double-edged sword. Yes, it risked becoming submerged in a right wing union dominated at local level by right wing and sectarian shop stewards.

But a problem can be looked at from more than one angle. Viewed from a different perspective the merger would have allowed the MSF activists, who had a powerful reputation in the company, access to the shop floor members of the AEEU. By campaigning systematically among this membership the basis might have been laid over time for the ditching of the right wing thus creating a powerful position for the left in the factory. This more patient strategy might well have paid much greater dividends in the longer run.

A New Union

It is important to draw the lessons from such experiences otherwise mistakes that have been made tend to be repeated. A much riskier venture, with much greater potential pitfalls, is now being considered in the form of a proposal to organise a breakaway mainly from the T&GWU and MSF and form a new union.

A great deal of denial and double speak has surrounded this issue but it is clear that Mick O’Reilly, Joe Bowers and others in the south see that one way of responding to their suspensions and sackings would be by launching their own union. This is mainly an issue for the south where they hope to link up with the breakaway train drivers union, the ILDA and to attract disaffected members of SIPTU.

Even if the potential base is mainly in the south there would be repercussions in the north where some attempt would be made to get this union off the ground as well. As with the question of moving from one union to another this is a tactical issue. There are circumstances where the launching of a new union can give a massive impetus to the class struggle.

The development of “new unionism” in Ireland only fully came about after Larkin broke away from the British based National Union of Dock Labourers to form the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Although the split complicated the situation in Belfast across the rest of the country it paved the way for the union organization to spread beyond the skilled and semi skilled.

This only came about through a series of titanic battles. The 1913 Dublin lockout was fought over the issue of recognition and was really a drawn contest. It took the huge wave of struggles that followed the Russian Revolution, the most revolutionary period in Irish history, to firmly establish the ITGWU as the pre-eminent force among the working class.

In the US there was a similar development during the 1930s with the split from the conservative and craft based American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This presaged a mighty movement of the US working class with the violent wave of sit down strikes and occupations that forced the unionisation of the motor industry and other corporations.

These were situations where a developing mass movement of the working class could no longer be contained and restrained within the confines of old organisations. The new unions were thrown up by a wave of struggle that extended the boundaries of trade union organisation beyond its original craft base.

Circumstances today are different. The argument put forward to support the idea of a new union is that the existing unions have moved so far to the right they no longer fulfil the functions of unions. A large section of the membership is disillusioned and would support a new formation. The general bowing to the employers has left huge areas of the workforce unorganised. All this, it is argued, provides fertile territory for a new and more radical union to grow.

There is a certain basis to this line of reasoning. However, for a new union to be successful it would have to develop, not just from splits at the top, but out of the pressure of sections of the working class determined to fight to build it, as those who built the ITGWU fought in 1913 and after.

It would also have to show itself to be qualitatively different from the existing right wing and bureaucratic unions. Otherwise why should workers be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to win the battles that would be needed to bring it into being? Having elected officials on average wages might not be a precondition of success but it would certainly help.

Even if all these factors were in place it would still be necessary to think and think again before taking such a step. Unlike the former mass workers parties that have become openly capitalist parties and have severed their direct connection with the working class the nature of trade unions means that, despite the incorporation of their tops into the state, this link is retained.

Generally speaking it is easier to transform the existing unions than it is to create new formations. And generally this is the better road for the working class to take because it avoids the pitfalls and risks associated with any attempt to win recognition and recruit members to a new and untested organisation.

A new radical union would meet fierce resistance from the employers, the government and from the trade union establishment. To win recognition it would have to take on all three. This would only be possible on the basis that it could win a majority of the workers in a number of key and important workplaces where it could force recognition. Perhaps this could be done if these workforces were prepared for what could be a long struggle.

But if this was not possible – or if such a struggle ended in defeat – there is the danger that the leading activists could be victimised. Not only would the embryo of the new union be stillborn, what would be left behind would be a weakened trade union organization with the right wing even more entrenched.

There is very little in all this that points to the new union being considered by Joe Bowers, Mick O’Reilly and others having much chance of getting off the ground in any serious manner – in the north at least. Most of the pressure for this initiative is coming from sections of existing union leaderships. Undoubtedly there is intense anger among the rank and file of many unions at the rotten role played by the right wing bureaucracy. What is not so clear is whether this anger has developed into a positive mood for a breakaway.

It is possible that such a mood could develop. However this is much less likely in the context of a recession when the mood of the working class is likely to be defensive. Workers in factories facing redundancies will be less confident about taking on the employers on a recognition issue.

In the north the issue is complicated further by the fact that a split would be a breakaway from British based unions to join a union based in the south. Right-wingers would use sectarian arguments to cut across its support. Faced with the prospect that it could introduce a sectarian division into the workforce even the most sympathetic activists would hesitate and hesitate again before taking any steps to set it up.

We can be slightly more open about the prospect for the proposed new union in the south but in the north it is extremely unlikely to develop any real support. If it is formed it could end up as more of propaganda group, a meeting point for activists, rather than a trade union. Even if this is all it amounts to we should not completely ignore it. It could possibly play a certain role in the rebuilding of a political voice for the working class.

Changing the Unions

Whatever happens it will not divert the main strategic line of advance of the working class, which will be through the existing trade union structures. This is the more straightforward road with the least pitfalls and it is the one that most workers will take.

What happened in NIPSA on the back of the term time dispute shows what can happen in every union in the future. The right wing has always controlled the leading bodies of NIPSA and in recent years this control has been more of a stranglehold. But the term time dispute electrified the union and exposed the role both of the bureaucracy and the right dominated General Council in the eyes of a broad swathe of the activists.

Shortly after this dispute was settled elections were held for the incoming General Council. Those opposed to the old leadership, including members of the Socialist Party and those who had led the term time struggle put a “Time for Change” slate forward.

The elections saw the biggest shift to the left in the union’s history. Of the 16 “Time for Change” candidates 11 were elected. For the first time the right failed to gain a majority on the Council. The highest vote went to a term time worker from the South Eastern Board who was standing for her first election to any position outside her own branch. Four members of the Socialist Party were elected. The left also took two of the three officers positions including the Presidency.

What has been achieved, as a consequence of the term time and childcare disputes is a partial transformation of the union. Enough members were enthused by these victories and enraged by the obstructive role played by the leadership over term time to bring about a major upset in the elections. It has vividly demonstrated that it is through struggle that the stranglehold of the right on the unions will be broken.

Still, a sense of proportion is needed in registering what has happened. The election victories, while extremely important, do not mean that NIPSA has been totally transformed or that the right have been routed. The recent disputes have directly involved only a small section of the union’s membership. Only a few branches, which in most cases already had a left leadership, were involved.

The change that has taken place has been in a small minority of branches and at the top of the union. The broad membership may have followed what was happening but a large majority of them have never been involved in any serious struggle. Across the union many branches are defunct, others are controlled by the right wing and have a very low level of activity.

The real transformation will come when issues arise that involve many more branches, including civil service branches, in action; and when a process of displacing the right wing from the positions they hold in these branches really gets underway. The victory in the 2001 elections establishes a bridgehead for the left at the top of the union. It is a bridgehead that will only be held if the process of change is carried down through the branches into the membership.

If the “Time for Change” victory can be repeated in the next elections – and this is by no means guaranteed – the influence of the left at the top can accelerate the process of change at the bottom. Branches that want to take industrial action can be encouraged and given backing, not made to jump through various shades of bureaucratic hoops as would have happened before.

Issues like cuts, wages, but especially privatization or part privatization that the previous right wing dominated General Councils have ducked and avoided are there in abundance. If even one or two of these are taken up in a campaigning way they can open the door to struggles that will challenge the role of the right wing at branch level and help promote a new layer of younger activists.

What has happened in NIPSA can take place in other unions, the MSF and the T&GWU included. This will require events, struggles that activate and radicalise the ranks that are now largely dormant. There is no substitute for events in bringing about change. But if we can develop a base of even a few key activists in the main unions we can speed this process, just as the work we have carried out in NIPSA has quite dramatically accelerated the shift to the left that has taken place in that union.

It is now most likely that the period we are entering will bring about a new upturn in the class struggle and the beginnings of a recovery from the past period of retreat. It is not possible to predict the timescale or the tempo of this movement. History will combine objective conditions with the subjective role of individuals and organizations to determine this. At this stage we can only point to the main processes and draw general conclusions.

A Working Class Party

Increased working class struggle – whether through the unions on industrial matters, or from within the communities on social questions, or in some other form – will mean a development of class-consciousness that ultimately will challenge the narrow sectarian outlook that has been vastly reinforced by the downturn of the workers movement.

A significant and sustained rise in class-consciousness would necessarily mean a change in political outlook. It would give weight to the idea that the working class have particular political interests that cannot be served by sectarian and right wing parties all of whom, in the last analysis, defend the interests of the ruling class.

A by-product of the Troubles was the political decapitation of the working class to the point that sectarian parties, for the first time in the history of the north, managed to gain a complete monopoly in working class areas. A new period of intense class struggle would bring the working class into collision with these parties – and would pose once again the need for an alternative.

The idea that has been off the agenda for a whole historical period – that the working class needs its own political party – can resurface and, provided the movement is not thrown back by sectarian upheaval, can resurface with some force. This idea can grow from being the property of a few relatively isolated activists to become part of the consciousness of a broad layer of the working class.

Whether, at what point, and in what manner this understanding will move beyond an idea and take a serious organizational form is an open question. It will depend on how the movement will develop. The first steps could be taken if campaigners on single issues – the campaign to save local hospitals is the clearest immediate example – decide to put up candidates. There was a dry run in the 2001 local elections with Raymond Blaney’s victory in Downpatrick.

Or a union or group of unions shifting significantly to the left could decide to defend their members’ interests; for example on issues like privatization by directly fielding candidates or else endorsing candidates. Or moves to break the sectarian political monopoly could begin in ways that it is impossible to foresee at this juncture.

As with the fight to end the right wing control of the unions the subjective factor in the form of our party can play an important role in making sure, as far as our resources allow, that every avenue that opens towards the building of a political party of the working class is taken.

Can the Sectarian Parties Be Exposed?

The task of combating and exposing the powerful sectarian vested political interests will not be easy. Each of the major parties will use every weapon at their disposal to keep the working class divided and protect their political terrain. If the Assembly were to stay in place for a further period it would easier – but still not easy – to expose the real class nature of these parties and to loosen their ties of support among the working class.

Since the fall of the old Stormont in 1972 and the imposition of direct rule – apart from the few moments when new political institutions were put in place and before their collapse – all the major parties have had the political luxury of being in permanent opposition. They were able to concentrate on their own sectarian agenda while distancing themselves from any unpopular measures introduced by governments at Westminster.

The Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly changed all that. Sinn Fein, the SDLP the DUP and UUP shared out responsibility between themselves for economic development and the administration of public services like Health, Education, and Transport.

What was notable was the speed with which the euphoria about an Assembly, in which normally warring adversaries agreed to cooperate, evaporated and how quickly any illusions about what this body might deliver began to dispel. It did not go unnoticed that the first act of the Assembly, agreed in an instant by parties who had spun the peace negotiations out for years, was to grant themselves a huge pay rise. Or that the next measures were to sort out their pensions and then to work out severance payments just in case the whole thing quickly collapsed.

Once up and running there was the usual discord on whatever sectarian issues the main parties choose to flag up. But there was complete harmony on social and economic matters. On one or two issues local pressure forced them to step back from some of New Labour’s most unpopular measures. The imposition of fees on third level students was modified, not completely abolished.

There was also some kudos for the review and probably the abolition of the hated 11-plus examination and the granting of free public transport to pensioners. But any positive impact of these measures was more than negated by the crisis in Health care, the closure of local hospitals, the impotence of the economic development Minister in face of factory closures, the depression in Agriculture and the continuation of privatisation under schemes like the Private Finance Initiative.

From virtually the word go the attitude of workers was one of mistrust in the Executive. There were very few illusions that left to themselves the politicians would deliver anything, Rather than sit back and leave it to these parties the instinct was to lobby, protest and apply pressure in whatever way possible to force them to deliver.

The fact of the existence of the Executive encouraged a large number of demonstrations and rallies, most of them on class issues. In a very short space of time the front steps of Stormont became the stage for all sorts of protests. The term time workers organized a number of mass lobbies, as did other groups of workers. Farmers and farm workers staged what was the biggest demonstration during the Assembly’s first period when thousands turned up to protest against the virtual collapse of the agriculture industry.

With the Assembly back in place after the IRA’s decommissioning move – at least for a period – the politics that the four Executive parties will come up with will be more of the same – very public sectarian brawling but behind it close cooperation on pro business anti working class measures.

The “Program for Government” which is to be agreed by the start of 2002 sets out its stall clearly when it states that the private sector is the “motor of economic development”. The policy is for increased use of private finance in public services meaning – unless recession and mass opposition forces them to pull back – worse conditions for those who work in them and a worse service for the public.

All the parties are fully behind this. Sinn Fein, despite the radical image it still likes to project, has joined the chorus of “pragmatism” when it comes to this and other economic policies. Writing in their West Belfast newsletter – under the misleading heading “Developing our public services” – local Sinn Fein MLA, Alex Maskey accepts that “we will need to fund an even greater portion of our public sector capital building program using PPP (Public Private Partnerships)”.

He argues that “Private Sector Finance can help accelerate building and investment” and concludes that “we will have to take responsibility for some difficult decisions and rhetoric will not help when the reality hits us that we need to find billions to invest in restructuring our hospitals or our railways.”

Sinn Fein will have to answer to its working class base for these policies which will be increasingly unpopular. So will the DUP which has a stronger base in Protestant working class areas than its UUP rival.

This is especially so since the next period of the Assembly will take place against the background of recession. Whatever advantage it gained from the continued growth of the economy when it was first set up will no longer be there. If the Executive manages to stumble on for a lengthy period its policies will face opposition from the working class. It is possible that big movements could develop against it.

What it did in its first period caused problems and divisions in those parties that rely on working class support, especially Sinn Fein. These did not go to the point of open cracks or splits because of the glue of the national question and because the Executive was not in place long enough.

Nonetheless it was clear that many Sinn Fein representatives on the ground found some of the decisions being taken by the two Sinn Fein Ministers impossible to sell. Health Minister Bairbre De Brun has recommended the Hayes decision that would remove emergency services from Omagh.

Yet the Sinn Fein councillors in Omagh could not do anything else but support the anti-closure campaign and back the mass demonstration against Hayes – and against De Brun. Newly elected Westminster MP for the area, Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein, also called for acute services to stay in Omagh.

The Omagh council campaign has a parochial view – that if there is to be a new hospital it should be in Omagh and not in Enniskillen. The Hayes report is recommending instead that Enniskillen should be upgraded and Omagh run down.

While their party colleagues are taking to the streets in Omagh to oppose Hayes the no less parochial and blinkered local politicians from all parties in Fermanagh have welcomed the report. Pat Doherty, representing West Tyrone, is against Hayes. Across the constituency boundary in Fermanagh/South Tyrone his newly elected Sinn Fein colleague, Michelle Gildernew, agrees with the report.

It may be that Bairbre De Brun will be forced to bow to the pressure and make a concession over Omagh. This would get Sinn Fein off this particular hook. But what has happened on this happened also over the term time dispute and will occur again over many other questions – provided that is that the Assembly stays in place.

Divide and Rule

All other things being equal this would inevitable lead to an erosion of support among the working class for the parties in the Executive. It would also prepare the ground for an alternative to emerge. However this would not be automatic. The task of reconstructing mass parties of the working class will be difficult in every country with many obstacles left behind during the 1990s still there to cross. In Northern Ireland it will be more difficult again because of the hugely complicating factor of the national question.

Not all the anger that will develop against the policies of the Executive will take a class form. Whatever support seeps away from the main parties will leave a vacuum in the working class areas. This is a vacuum that a new working class party could fill. But the ground will not be uncontested.

There are powerful forces on both sides that would do everything possible to make sure the working class drew sectarian and not class conclusions. The main parties themselves would throw up a sectarian dust storm to prevent any class opposition from coalescing. We had a glimpse of this in the way Sinn Fein used the issue of parades to cut across class unity on the Ormeau Road in 1992. The unionists of all shades would do the same but under different colours and on different issues.

Behind these parties are the recalcitrant and reactionary forces that are active on a day-to-day basis in whipping up sectarianism within the working class communities. On the Protestant side anti Agreement unionists and loyalists – the DUP and a section of the UUP included – would try to channel discontent with the Executive into sectarian opposition to the Agreement.

On the Catholic side the more strident and more sectarian voices – within as well as outside Sinn Fein – would also try to dig a sectarian channel along which to direct the disillusionment of working class Catholics. They would encourage nationalist conclusions – that an “internal solution” won’t work, that the Assembly’s policies are dictated by Britain, that the lack of money is the fault of the British Exchequer and that only an all-Ireland economy could prosper etc. – and would step up the efforts to deconstruct the State from below.

That such voices will be raised doesn’t mean they will be successful in keeping workers divided. Nationalism and sectarianism offer an irrational outlet for class anger that cannot find any other expression. They flourish when, as at present, there is no alternative and will continue to develop unless an alternative is built.

But the emergence of a movement, even in its early stages, that is capable of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers and of showing another way of fighting back means that the discontent of the working class can be rationally expressed. Under these circumstances, when the working class have a choice and a better option, the efforts of sectarian politicians and their foot soldiers to whip up division can backfire.

Historically the attempts to divide workers have been successful in periods of downturn of the class struggle. When workers unite in action to take a struggle forward the divide and rule tactics of governments, employers or politicians have, more often than not, acted to drive the movement forward, to further cement unity and to isolate the sectarians. They act like the whip of counter-revolution, which applied at the wrong time, can produce revolution, not reaction.

We have often given the example of what happened during the 1974 unofficial strike by workers in the milk industry in Belfast. At one point a dairy with a mainly Protestant workforce went back to work while the dairy next door, with its overwhelmingly Catholic workforce, stayed out. Loyalist paramilitaries saw this as an opportunity and mounted a gun attack on the mainly Catholic picket line. Strike leaders responded by calling a meeting of the neighbouring Protestant workforce who, in their disgust at the attack, decided to rejoin the strike. Once again it was the whip of counter-revolution driving the movement forward.

This may be a small-scale example but it illustrates a process that can be repeated on a much bigger scale. If united workers movements develop in opposition to the policies of the four party Executive, attempts by these parties – or by others – to throw sectarian dust in the face of these movements could have the opposite effect than that intended. If could expose the sectarians for what they are in the minds of a broad layer of the working class; it could reduce their influence and could cement the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers that had emerged up to that point.

If the Assembly Collapses

The best scenario from a socialist point of view would be that the Assembly would survive for an extended period, not because this will bring any stability but because it will help expose the true nature of the four main parties. This doesn’t mean that if the Assembly collapses there is no hope of the real class character of these parties being uncovered.

Unless there is a rapid descent into a sectarian war, which would represent a crushing defeat for the working class, there will be a new upturn in the class struggle. This will come about because of objective factors, not because the Assembly is there. True, the Assembly does provide a more accessible target and, because of this, may encourage workers to struggle.

Without it struggles would still take place. Perhaps workers would hesitate a little more but the strikes and mass movements that have taken place over the last thirty years of direct rule show the ultimately irrepressible nature of the class struggle. The only difference would be that the political sights of these movements would shift from Stormont towards the Westminster government and its local overlords.

This does not mean that the local politicians, with their hands clean of responsibility for unpopular measures, would be let completely off the hook. Struggles in the workplaces or in the communities would, by necessity, draw workers together. And these workers would learn vital lessons from this experience. They would learn that they have common interests and that the best way to protect those interests is to act together.

Every sustained struggle that brings Protestant and Catholic workers together lays down a challenge to the stranglehold that the sectarian organizations, the main parties included, try to maintain over “their” communities. Any tendency towards class unity is a tendency away from sectarianism; away from the narrow outlook promoted by these organizations. The more developed it becomes the greater the threat it poses to them.

When confronted with class movements, with strikes and mass protests, those sectarian politicians who rely on working class support might be forced to give some verbal support. But they will do nothing to promote and extend these struggles; rather the main aim of any intervention they make would be to bring them to an end.

If a prolonged upsurge of class struggle reinforced working class unity the sectarian parties, orange and green, would try to whip up sectarianism to divert the attention of the working class and cut across it. Divide and rule methods used against a developing class movement could boomerang on their authors, just as they would if the Assembly was in place. The real class nature of the main parties, rather than becoming blurred, could be put into sharper focus.

Parallel Developments

In the immediate period the sectarian conflict is set to continue and could well intensify. But at the same time there could be a parallel development of the class struggle. It is possible for contradictory processes to develop side by side. It would not be the first time that this has happened in Northern Ireland.

The first years of the 1980s were dominated by the hunger strikes and the upheaval that they provoked. Bobby Sands’ election, his subsequent death and the deaths of nine others staggered over a period of months, massively polarized society along sectarian lines. These events were the real beginnings of the political rise of Sinn Fein, which polarized things even further.

Yet this was also a period of class militancy. Workers in Northern Ireland marched in tandem with workers in Britain to resist and oppose the monetarist policies of the recently elected Thatcher government. There were strikes in the private and the public sector. The highpoint of this movement in Northern Ireland were the health strikes of 1982.

These saw determined picket lines with hundreds of workers at hospital entrances. Many thousands took part in the colourful and lively demonstrations and the angry, foot stamping rallies. Other workers lined up behind the health workers and there was sympathetic action with solidarity strikes by workers in Shorts, the Shipyard and other workplaces.

But the most significant feature of this struggle was the emergence of a powerful shop stewards movement. The local union committees in each hospital set the pace throughout the dispute. When these committees were linked up they became the real leadership, and, to a large extent, were able to elbow the much more hesitant union bureaucracies to the side.

In Britain the Labour Party shifted to the left; Tony Benn came within a whisker of election as Deputy leader. In Northern Ireland the movement also began to overspill in a political direction. A number of Trades Councils stood candidates in the 1981 local government elections. For the first time since the early 1970s there was a serious discussion about how the working class could build its own political voice.

This class movement began on a parallel but separate track to the contradictory events that surrounded the hunger strikes and the rise of Sinn Fein. But although sectarian and class forces can be strengthened in tandem for a period at some point they are bound to collide. Both are competing for the same base of support among the working class and the reinforcing of one ultimately must mean the corresponding weakening of the other.

By the mid 1980s, especially after the defeat of the miner’s strike in Britain, the class movement began to fall back. The moves towards political action came to nothing. With the working class organizations unable to provide an alternative the various sectarian forces stepped into the vacuum. In turn the growth of sectarianism made the prospects for class unity and a socialist solution seem ever more remote.

It is possible that the next few years could see a repeat of what happened in the first years of the 1980s. The sectarian polarization will remain and could well increase. The conflict could intensify as the peace process unravels even further. Yet alongside all this there could also be a development, perhaps a significant development of the class struggle driven by international and by local factors.

The Middle East provides a contemporary example of what can happen. Just over a year ago the outbreak of what has become known as the Al-Asqa intifada signalled a dramatic escalation of that conflict. Since then the region has teetered perilously close to the edge of all out war.

Yet, despite a background of bloody military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, of systematic assassinations of Palestinian activists and of suicide bomb and gun attacks inside, there has been a very significant industrial movement of the Israeli working class. In recent months there have been strikes by Dockers, Fire-fighters, Land Registry workers, University lecturers, Ministry of Labour workers and other public servants to name but some.

There is no exact parallel between Northern Ireland and the situation in the Middle East. Nonetheless the growth of class anger at cut backs and the first effects of recession in Israel is an indication that even a quite dramatic worsening of the sectarian conflict here need not necessarily dampen the determination of the working class to struggle.

A Socialist Programme

Most likely a new upsurge in class struggle will begin on industrial or social issues: wages, job losses, privatization, cuts in services etc. The first instinct even of some of the best workers involved is likely to be to stick to these issues and avoid the more “divisive” and “difficult” questions like parades, policing and above all the constitutional question.

However these issues cannot be ducked or avoided. They will not simply go away and if the working class movement does not take them up in a way that will unite workers the sectarians will continue to do so in a way that will keep people divided.

It is possible to unite workers even on questions like parades and on the national question. We are unique in having developed a program that is capable of doing this. Our ideas on parades are now accepted by a wide layer of workers, Catholic and Protestant. On the question of the border and partition we are alone in having a position that does not bend into either sectarian camp, but upholds the rights of both sections of the working class and puts class rather than sectional interests first.

We are opposed to all capitalist “solutions” as completely unworkable. This means we are against any attempt to force Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland, just as we are against attempts to coerce Catholics to accept the status quo. We advocate a socialist Ireland as an equal and voluntary part of a socialist federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland which in turn would be part of a wider European socialist federation or confederation.

A socialist Ireland means a single socialist state, not a continuation of partition. But in putting this forward we have to take account of the doubts and reservations that are very deeply felt in the Protestant community. It can only be advanced if, alongside it, there is an assurance that Protestants would not be coerced into a single socialist state against their will. Should they remain opposed even to a socialist united Ireland they would be given the right to opt out and some other political arrangement could be put in place; at least until the doubts of the Protestant working class were allayed.

Any class unity that starts out on social and economic questions will only be cemented if it is extended to the so-called “sectarian” issues. A sustained class movement would inevitably be driven in a political direction as workers draw political conclusions from their experience and as it starts to come into direct collision with those who have a vested interest in maintaining the sectarian divide.

To ultimately succeed in eroding the working class support for sectarian ideas and organizations it would have to offer a socialist alternative. Events will push the movement in this direction, especially as socialist ideas begin to resurface internationally.

Role of Marxists

However when a new mass workers movement develops the long historical gap separating it from previous movements means that it will start out on a low level of consciousness. Lessons that were learned or part learned in the past about how to tackle sectarianism, about the need to go beyond economic issues, about the need for political as well as industrial action will have to be relearned.

Those who retain the traditions of the past can shorten the path to the future. It is the advanced layer of the working class, the shop stewards and class-conscious activists, those who remain active when mass struggles subside, who carry the best traditions and whatever lessons they have absorbed from those struggles into future movements.

Above all it is the role of Marxists to consciously assimilate the lessons of past movements, of defeats as well and as much as, of victories. The revolutionary party acts as a memory for the working class using its history to help work out a strategy.

The last decade and a half of general retreat has meant that the activist class-conscious layer of the working class has been thinned dramatically. It is now more the case that there are pockets of activists, maintaining class ideas in some workplaces and some communities, but there is no longer a strata capable of directing and drawing the working class behind it.

This places a double weight of responsibility on Marxists. The Socialist Party has a dual task in this period. On the one hand we have to defend the far-reaching conclusions that flow from the history of the workers movement: the inability of reformist ideas and methods to resolve the national problem and overthrow capitalism. On the other hand we face the more elementary task of defending the idea of struggle, of rebuilding combative trade union organizations in the workplaces and of helping the movement take the first steps towards independent political action.

These tasks are complementary – we do not first work with others to rebuild independent class organizations and then, only when this done, build our own party. The revolutionary conclusions we have drawn flow from history and experience. They represent, in the last analysis, the only way forward for the working class. Our ideas are the only ideas that offer a way of solving the national problem and of uniting workers on all of the complex and potentially divisive issues that area associated with it.

The mass of the working class will come to these conclusions through experience. But our intervention can speed this process. This means standing alongside the working class in every struggle, advancing step by step with the workers movement, attempting to consolidate every gain but, at the same time, always pointing to the need to overthrown capitalism and to build a party that is committed to this task.

The emergence of a new generation of class activists, above all the growth in support and influence of our party, will accelerate the class struggle. Even now workers are much more likely to take action where they have confidence in their local leadership. And important strikes or other struggles taking place even in one or two workplaces or affecting one or two groups of workers can have far reaching effects in encouraging other workers to take action.

A leadership with roots in a few key areas can have an influence and effect far beyond its numbers and, in Northern Ireland, can even have a decisive impact on the overall political situation. Initiatives taken by members of our party have in the past led to massive united movements of Catholic and Protestant workers against sectarianism.

By contrast there was an opportunity in the summer of 2001 for similar action against the assassinations carried out by the UDA. The killing of Ciaran Cummings in Antrim did provoke a walk out of sorts by his F.G. Wilson workmates. But it was unorganised and barely noticed by the mass of the working class.

Had there been a active and confident union organisation in the factory, above all if the Socialist Party had had a presence, we could have responded to the news of his death with a mass meeting of the workforce and a decision to walk out. This, if it was coupled with an appeal to workers elsewhere to take protest action, could have triggered a movement that would have forced even the UDA to hold its hand for a period.

The subjective factor of leadership will be build from the movements of the working class and in turn, as it develops, will have an effect in shaping and strengthening those movements. Thus the development of our party is not something for the future, for “better times” when there is a more smoothly contoured objective landscape. It is an urgent immediate task both because of the impact even a small organisation that has real roots in the working class can have in helping push the working class into action and also to ensure that we have the forces to be able to intervene in those movements when they take place.

Building the Party

Just as the tempo of class struggle can rise even in a period of rising sectarianism so the forces of Marxism can grow significantly even when the mass of the working class are not looking in a socialist direction. There are those who can see the dangers of the current sectarian drift of events and who are increasingly aware that an alternative is needed.

This may be a small layer at this stage but it can still provide the forces to allow our party to develop our base among the working class and especially among the youth. Within the workplaces and the communities there are a small – very small at this point it is true – number of activists who are repelled by sectarianism and who want to put the class issues to the fore. As struggles develop this layer will grow.

For now it is a matter of developing points of support, of consolidating and building around whatever bridgeheads we can establish. Key positions that are won today even in a few areas can, when struggles take place in these areas, become a focus of attention for much wider layers of activists.

The base that we have already carved out in the public sector, especially in NIPSA, can be a vital stepping-stone to building our influence in the trade union movement generally. We need to concentrate on developing this work. This is not to ignore the industrial working class, the powerful “big battalions” who are key in the long run.

However the public sector can be the more immediate key. Public sector workplaces are generally more mixed. Many have played a key role in the movements against sectarianism in the past and the residue of these movements remains. Issues like privatization, as well as the chronically low wages and erosion of conditions, means that they can be a battleground. Also the fact that the local politicians are now the “employer” means that political conclusions can more easily be drawn from struggles.

We need to pay particular attention to the recruitment of women workers. Women are an increasingly important part of the workforce. At the start of the Troubles the female participation rate was 33.5%. By 1989 this had risen to 46.3%. During the 1990s female employment rose by 19.7%. By 1999 the economic activity rate of women had risen to 64.8%.

This dramatic rise means that women provide a relatively fresh layer of the workforce. Many are in low paid part time jobs especially those in the service sector. The simmering anger that exists among this section of the workforce is shown every week at the End Low Pay stalls. The majority of those who sign are women. as are most of those who report the worst conditions and lowest pay. The important role that women will play in future struggles was also shown in the term time dispute which was overwhelmingly a struggle of women workers.

Women will play a vital role in the rebirth of the working class movement. As well paying attention to the recruitment of women, especially working class women, in all areas of our work we need to take up issues that are more specific to women. We need to increase the participation of women at all levels within the party.

But overall the most important area of work for us is our youth work. Youth are the most dynamic section of society, those that will most readily draw revolutionary conclusions. The point made earlier that a section of the youth are now open to socialist and Marxist ideas cannot be overstressed.

We need to intervene energetically to win these youth to our ideas. It may be middle class youth that are more open to radical ideas at the moment but, if we recruit and educate from this stratum and then orientate them to the working class, they can play an indispensable role in the building of our party.

We have competition in this area. Sectarian organizations of both sides are also paying attention to youth. Sinn Fein does not have a large active youth membership and they are trying to redress this by promoting their youth wing, Ogra Sinn Fein. On the Protestant side, the UDA are active in the schools trying to build the Ulster Young Militants.

It is only the ideas of the Socialist Party and of Socialist Youth that can provide an alternative to the sectarians and can win the best of the youth, Catholic and Protestant. In 1968-9 a mass movement of the youth stood society on its head. The old political structures crumbled before it.

The potential existed to build a socialist movement that could have changed society. That potential was lost and the youth who had scratched a deep notch in history either dropped away or ended up joining the paramilitaries. A bitter price has been paid for this.

If this generation of youth is also lost to sectarian ideas and organizations the working class will pay an even more terrible price. It would be a long way back from a defeat of this character. But if the new generation can be won to socialist ideas and to the struggle to bring these ideas about, it can stand on the shoulders of the best of what happened in 1968 and will be able to deal a decisive blow at sectarianism and at capitalism.

A difficult and dangerous situation has opened in the north. Unless the working class intervenes there will be a slide towards civil war. But there is also an opportunity for to build the Socialist Party, developing important points of support among the working class and the youth. To do this we need to concentrate our forces, to orientate to the areas where we can make gains. If we are successful we can have an impact on events, even in the short term. But every task must be imbued with urgency. We are in a race against time to build our forces so that we can prevent our sectarian enemies dragging us into a Bosnian quagmire.


1. The latest indications are that one of these killings – that of Ciaran Cummings in Antrim may have been carried out by dissident members of the UVF.

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Last updated: 5.1.2011