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Peter Hadden

August 1969 – When workers stood up
to sectarianism

(September 2005)

From The Socialist, No. 9, September 2005.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Sectarian attacks have become a nightly occurrence over the summer months. In our editorial we point to the need to build a united movement of working class people in both communities as the only effective way to halt these attacks. In the face of what is taking place at the moment this can seem a daunting task.

The history of Northern Ireland is most often presented as an unremitting litany of sectarian conflict. But a glance at the real history of the working class movement, even through the difficult years of “the Troubles”, demonstrates time after time the ability of working class people to cut across the sectarian conflict.

Here briefly is one example of what has been done and of the type of action that needs to be repeated and built upon now.

Some of the recent fighting that has taken place around the Ardoyne area of North Belfast is reminiscent of similar clashes that took place in the early summer of 1969 when the North stood on the brink of more than thirty years of “The Troubles”.

In August 1969 the situation spilled over. The Catholic working class Bogside and Creggan areas of Derry rose in revolt against the state. When the violence spread to Belfast it took a more sectarian form with Catholic areas of North and West Belfast burnt in sectarian pogroms.

With the situation poised on the brink of civil war the Labour Government of Harold Wilson decided to put the army on the streets.

But it was not the troops that prevented the sectarian violence spiralling out of control. In Derry and West Belfast where the initial trouble was concentrated it is true that the entry of the troops had a temporary impact.

If, however, the violence had spread beyond these areas the troops would have been absolutely unable to contain it. Their only option would have been to implement their reserve plans to provide for the military evacuation of much of the Catholic population from the north eastern areas of Northern Ireland.

That the trouble did not spread to other areas and to the workplaces was mainly down to initiatives taken by trade union and working class activists on the ground. In many areas peace was maintained by committees set up by working class residents and uniting both Catholics and Protestants.

This was the case, for example, in the Docks area of Belfast as well as in other parts of the north and west of the city. The Alliance Avenue area on one edge of Ardoyne is currently the scene of constant sectarian attacks. At that time, while sectarian fighting was taking place on the other side of the Ardoyne, Catholics and Protestants came together in this area to prevent similar attacks.

East Belfast also remained relatively quiet, again largely because of initiatives taken by working class people, many of them activists in the local labour and trade union movement. When loyalist bigots issued “get out or be burnt out” threats against Catholic families living in the largely Protestant working class areas of East Belfast, local peace committee activists responded with leaflets put through Catholic doors saying “stay put, we will protect you.”

The fact that the pogroms did not spread to the shop floor was again down to the courageous work of trade union activists, not because of any action by the State. An attempt was made to drive out those Catholics who were working in the Harland & Wolfe shipyard, as had happened in the 1920 pogroms.

This time the shop stewards in the yard responded by calling a mass meeting. 9,000 workers turned up and a resolution condemning any sectarian intimidation was passed. That night the shop stewards, mainly Protestant, visited Catholic workers in West Belfast, which at the time was sealed off with barricades, and assured them that they could safely return to work.

This is just a glimpse at a single page of history. There have been many similar pages during the past three and a half decades – the local general strikes against sectarian killings that led to the trade union Better Life For all Campaign in 1975, the strikes by DHSS workers against sectarian threats against both Catholic and Protestant workers that forced the paramilitaries to back off, the mass trade union demonstrations against the tit for tat sectarian atrocities of the early 1990s and, more recently, the magnificent strike by postal workers against the murder by the UDA of their colleague, Danny McColgan.

These initiatives were not built upon. They did not lead to sustained campaigns to unite working class people, not just against sectarian attacks, but against the underlying causes of sectarianism and for a socialist alternative. Similar action is needed today, but this time it should be the starting point of the building of a new industrial and political movement of the working class to provide a way out of the current sectarian impasse.

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Last updated: 17 February 2020