Posted on the SocialistWorld.net Website, 17 January 2008.
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Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The following letter was written in reply to public statements made by Paul Butler, of Sinn Fein, after striking classroom assistants protested outside the headquarters of Sinn Fein and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) during which placards made by individual strikers compared Caitriona Ruane, Sinn Fein’s minister of education, with the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Paul Butler demanded that the public sector union, NIPSA, apologise to the people of West Belfast for the fact that striking classroom assistants carried posters comparing Caitriona Ruane to Margaret Thatcher, who is a hated figure, including for her cruel and intransigent role during the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike, which saw the death of 10 prisoners, including Bobby Sands.
The Socialist Party letter in reply to Butler’s attacks was published in The Irish News, last December, provoking wider debate and criticism of Sinn Fein’s policies.
Not even many Sinn Fein supporters will be either impressed or fooled when party leaders attempt to invoke the memory of the hunger strikers to deflect attention from the right wing policies being carried out by their Stormont Ministers.
Paul Butler (19th November) wants NIPSA to apologise to the people of West Belfast for the fact that striking classroom assistants dared carry posters comparing Caitriona Ruane to Margaret Thatcher during a protest outside Sinn Fein’s Lower Falls office and close to the Bobby Sands mural.
Bobby Sands, according to Richard O’Rawe’s book Blanketmen, said that “he would not be interested in a united Ireland that wasn’t socialist and that a capitalist Ireland wasn’t worth the life of one Irishman.” True, the Sinn Fein leadership dispute some of the claims of that book although none have contradicted that particular quote. In any case the more “favoured” biography of Sands written by Denis O’Hearn is similarly peppered with direct quotes from Sands emphasising that his was a socialist as opposed to a purely nationalist outlook.
If these quotes are accurate – and those Sinn Fein leaders who were in prison with him, and who know the truth better than me, are free to contradict them if they want – it is not hard to work out what attitude the Bobby Sands of 1981 would have had to a Sinn Fein Minister cutting the hourly rate of low paid workers in order to conform with Peter Robinson’s “made in Northern Ireland” (in reality “made in Westminster”) budget.
As to the posters of Thatcher carried by classroom assistant, it is obvious to all but those who want to deliberately twist things that these were not in reference to her callous and intransigent role in the hunger strike, but to the all out assault on trade unions and workers’ rights for which she is chiefly remembered.
Caitriona Ruane may defend herself from the strikebreaking, anti union charge by pointing to those unions, apart from NIPSA, who either have endorsed her miserly offer or else are permanently “consulting” their members rather than join the strikes.
She should remember – and so should those trade union leaders who are currently sitting on their hands – that during the historic 1984/5 miners strike Thatcher was similarly supported all along by the misnamed “Union of Democratic Mineworkers” who kept the Nottingham coalfields going throughout.
Meanwhile other right wing trade union leaders who did not lift a finger to back the miners had no hesitation in verbally stabbing the miners’ leadership in the back. Few who were active at the time will forget the disgraceful comment of Electricians leader, Eric Hammond, at the 1984 Labour Party Conference, that the miners were “lions led by donkeys”.
There are never exact historical parallels. However there are comparisons that can be fairly drawn – comparisons for example between the role played by some union leaders in 1984/5 and some of their counterparts today.
It is also fair to say that Caitriona Ruane’s attempt to face down strikes in order to impose a pay cut on classroom assistants would have Margaret Thatcher’s full and enthusiastic approval.
Last updated: 5.7.2012