Socialist Party archives - The role of the union leadership, chapter from 1975 pamphlet on BICO

The role of the union leadership

Chapter from the pamphet, For Workers Unity

The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are 'Republicans'. Those who sit on Belfast Trades Council are no different. So say the Workers Association in their 'What's wrong with Ulster trade unionism?' pamphlet. 80% of this work is an attempt to justify this accusation. Only for a page or two at the end is the more publicised idea of an Ulster TUC given any attention. The aim of the pamphlet is not to improve the structure of the trade unions in Northern Ireland, as has been suggested by some, but is to smear the leadership of the trade union movement as 'republican' and thereby discredit them.

Many of the pamphlet's arguments are hair-raising indeed! The leaders of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU are tried and convicted of the above 'offence' on 'grounds' which only serve to expose the lack of any class understanding on the part of the Workers Association. The NIC committed such 'republican' crimes as refusing to participate I the jubilee celebrations to mark the 50 years of the Northern Ireland state. After 50 years of unemployment and low wages for many of their members what were the trade unions supposed to celebrate? But this action was a symptom of a much more heinous crime! The NIC actually backed the demand for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland!

Civil Rights

Civil Rights, according to the Workers Association, was 'promoted by the republican movement with the objective of weakening internal and international support for the Northern Ireland Administration prior to its overthrow' (p4). Why socialists should support and defend the rotten Tory state and administration in NI we are not told!

From the erudite thinkers who penned this pamphlet we learn a little new about Northern Ireland history. More accurately we find re-invoked the lies and myths about the nature of the NI state which for too long the Unionist hierarchy were able to spread. The Civil Rights movement slashed through the web of Unionist mythology with facts. Now we find the spider of the British and Irish Communist Organisation and the Workers Association busily at work with its theoretical needle attempting to repair the damage.

From Civil Rights platforms unanswerable arguments about discrimination in the fields of housing, job allocation and local election franchise were spelt out. In Derry with its 36,00 Catholics and 18,000 Protestants, the Unionist gerrymander was so effective that 12 out of the 20 seats on the council were consistently held by the Unionists. Into one of the city's three wards 10,000 of the 14,000 Catholics eligible to vote in the city were crammed. Many other parts of the North, Fermanagh in particular, tell the same story. The Workers Association cannot remain silent:
"….in a few cases where there was a balance between Unionist and Nationalists in local government ,the Unionist submitted plans which favoured them - and in the absence of Nationalists plans, these won out. On the local government franchise, this affected the working class, both Catholic and Protestant equally and was the same as existed in England up to 1945."
As a mighty gesture of condescension it is admitted that some slight discrimination did exist. But this affected all workers equally! In this section of the pamphlet we learn what Paisley, William Craig, Craigavon, Brookeborough and the rest have so often told us. Any evils in the Northern Ireland state were the fault of the minority! They abstained from the state. Had they submitted plans (!!) as suggested above all would have been rosy! Nothing is said of the policy of terror levelled through the B Specials against Catholic areas during the first years of the NI state. Nothing of James Craig's proud boast that he helped found a 'Protestant Government for a Protestant people.'

Job allocation which favoured Protestants was not a result of discrimination! Rather it was because Protestants had the necessary skills for work in industry while Catholics in Belfast in 1920 were 'first generation immigrants who possessed no skills and no aptitude for industrial work and factory discipline.' (p15) So the sectarian jibe about the lazy, undisciplined Catholic is confirmed by this scientific! Analysis! Protestants the Workers Association inform us (p15) were given more jobs, 'not by conscious discrimination, but by the normal functioning of trade unionism'. Indeed! It would be interesting to know what these writers would have to say to the speech of Sir Basil Brooke who in 1933 remarked: 'Many in the audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about the place.'

In July 1920 Sir Edward Carson addressed the Protestants in the Belfast shipyard and called for action. He was rewarded by a riot in which most of the Catholic workers were driven from the yard. Afterwards Sir James Craig, again addressing the shipyard men, said: "If you ask me my opinion of your action, I say, 'well done'. " On October 25th of that year Carson returned to this subject and declared that he was "prouder of my friends in the shipyards than of any other friends I have in the world". Ah but, say the BICO and the WA, if only the minority had submitted plans….!

The disease form which these two tendencies suffer has a variety of symptoms. On the one hand it affects the memory. Just a few years ago these same birds sang a different tune. June 1970, in issue 54 of the Irish Communist, (BICO publication) the editorial described the civil rights movement as 'a movement for the democratic reform of the sectarianism semi-fascist political structure built up by the Unionist bourgeoisie over a period of 50 years.'

Another symptom of their sickness is that whenever they discover something wrong their attempts to correct it only compound the original mistake a thousand times. They are like a surgeon who discovers a tumour on the brain and operates to remove the brain and leave the tumour. That the campaign for Civil Rights degenerated and in the end attracted only sectarian support is beyond question. But from this fact the Workers Association write off the entire campaign as 'republican inspired' and invent the most outrageous arguments to justify the undemocratic practices built up by the Unionist bosses. Because the Northern Ireland Committee backed the NICRA campaign and pushed 'the Civil Rights demands to the furtherest extent' (p5) they, conclude the Workers Association, are 'republicans' and must be removed from their positions.

Civil Rights - a class question

In Northern Ireland discrimination was a means used by the employing class to cement the division of the working class along religious lines. Workers who are divided are less able to fight for decent wages, etc. In the July 1920 riots in the shipyard it was significant that those who provoked the fighting, notably Carson and the Belfast Protestant Association, urged that not only Catholics but also socialists should be driven from their work benches.

The trade union leadership are at fault in relation to this issue. Not at fault for raising it, but at fault for taking a back seat and allowing green Tories as Hume and Cooper to head the Civil Rights struggle. Initially many Protestants were either sympathetic or neutral to the ending of discrimination. But as the campaign developed it was met by the thunder of bigotry form those high up in the Unionist movement. Most Unionist politicians wasted no time in decrying the Civil Rights campaign as an attempt to undermine the status of Protestants. (Not much different from the Workers Association propaganda.) Marches were driven into Catholic areas so people would know what colour these demonstrators were. The Humes and Coopers had no answers which could allay the growing fears of Protestant workers that this really was a movement directed against them.

In an arena of unemployment, low wages and squalid housing such as in Northern Ireland, Protestant workers were determined to hold onto what little they had. Civil Rights as presented through the mouths of Hume and Cooper meant only the most equal distribution of what there was. In NI it meant and still means the equal allocation of unemployment, the equal sharing out of the slums - in short the equal distribution of poverty. The fear of the Protestant workers was that, for example in relation to employment, it would mean redundancy for him so that a Catholic could take the job.

The Labour and Trade Union Movement could have laid these fears to rest. They could have brought Catholic and Protestant workers together around this issue, but only if class demands were raised. Instead of the dividing up of poverty they could have led a struggle for houses for all, for jobs for all and for a living wage for all workers. A myth has been built up that the Protestant working class is 'privileged' and would not have responded to such a campaign. On the contrary! Discrimination lined the pockets not of the workers but of the landowning and capitalist classes who made up the Unionist hierarchy. Among the working class it merely meant that while Protestants were given the nothing, the Catholics had to make do with even less. No statement better sums up the attitude of Protestant workers than that made by Gusty Spence during his period of freedom recently:
"We had known squalor. I was born and reared in it. No one knows better than we do the meaning of slums, the meaning of deprivation, the meaning of suffering for what one believes in, whatever the ideology. In so far as people speak of 50 years of misrule, I wouldn't disagree with that. What I would say is this, that we have suffered every but as much as the people of the Falls Road."
Protestant workers would have joined a struggle against the overlords of the Unionist order if they had seen in that struggle a solution to their day to day problems as well as those of their neighbours. Today the civil rights movement continues with the same demands as in the tumultuous days of 1968-9 when it became a mass force. Its leaders are the Communist Party and the Official Republican Movement. In refusing to broaden their demands from those of mere democracy they have learnt nothing from the past.

The BICO and WA are blind to the plight of the Catholic working class. Equally they are in the dark when it comes to the problems of Protestant workers. Their conclusion about the civil rights movement? It was a 'republican plot'; the Civil Rights programme was 'a nationalist scheme' (p13). The only answer to al this that they can come up with is that the trade union leadership must be axed!

A Smear Campaign

"Trade Union official using their positions to put forward nationalist views, such as Andrew Barr, should be ousted, using trade union methods." (p3) The removal of Barr and other "nationalists" is the central theme of the WA pamphlet. It is the key issue in the minds of these 'Marxists'. But such a call cannot be considered in the abstract. It must be related to the realities of the situation in the unions. The concrete circumstances in which it is raised is in the middle of a campaign on the party of the Ulster Workers Council to take over the leadership of the trade union movement. The UWC campaign of today is a revamped version of the wrecking campaign not so long ago of the Loyalist Association of Workers. That campaign and that organisation foundered when the ineptitude of its leaders on the basic trade union issues of pay and conditions was discovered. Today in the factories the same people who launched the LAW are at work in the activities of the UWC.

It is sheer lightmindedness to pose the removal of the present trade union leadership in the manner of the BICO and WA. The concrete question is that if Barr and company are forced out of their positions by a movement whipped up in the hysteria of 'anti-republicanism', who will replace them? The answer is given indirectly by the WA pamphlet. Every page of this document carries on its war against 'nationalism'. But of even a shadow of a hint of a criticism of any, even the most right wing loyalist groupings, there is nothing. Who succeeds if the WA get their way? Answer: the right wing 'loyalist' groups. Who looses? Answer: the whole layer of industrial militants who through their skills on trade union issues have won their present positions in the movement.

Socialists are fully justified in fighting for the leadership of the organisations of the working class. Such a struggle must take place around the need for socialist policies. It is a struggle form the left. The BICO and WA launch their attack from the right. Their arguments are merely a trap door which opens the way to trade union positions for right wing candidates. Their pamphlet attacks by name only the leading figures in the unions. But were a campaign around their demands to really gather force, all shop stewards, trade union activists and class-conscious militants would be under attack.

The method of attack of the Workers Association is beneath contempt. Marxists always base their arguments on facts. This pamphlet seeks to discredit its opponents by the vile language of smear and insinuation. Its whole basis is a smear campaign painting all opponents as 'republicans'. Precisely the method of argument of generations of Unionist and Tory 'gentlemen' who have deployed the 'republican scare' and the 'red scare' at will.

The word 'republican' as with the word 'nationalist' is emotionally charged in the circumstances of Northern Ireland. It cannot be bandied about in the manner of this pamphlet. It must be explained. Nowhere does any explanation of these terms appear in this entire document. Its authors take for granted that all their readers will understand their definitions without explanation. However we do not need to have explained to us the reason for the abundant and glib use of these terms. Basing their arguments on the fear among Protestant workers of a united Ireland, the WA seeks to gain support by hysterically denouncing all and sundry as 'republicans'.

Workers in Northern Ireland have nothing to gain from joining with the South under the present economic system. That is one side of the question. It is the only side the BICO and WA care to see. Equally true, however, socialists north and south have nothing to gain by remaining aloof from each other. The fight for socialism must bring workers in both parts of the island together in struggle. Such a struggle would tar aside the border and create a fraternity of workers, Catholic and Protestant, north and south, a Socialist United Ireland. But only one class can unite the country because only one class can answer the needs of and unite the people - the working class. The movement of the Irish workers must also link with the fight of the working class in the rest of the British Isles as a part of one struggle for a Socialist Federation of these Islands. What socialist could stand opposed to such a class opposition to the border? What 'socialist' other than those in the BICO?

The WA are not interested in such arguments about the border. To them the trade union leadership supported the Civil Rights demands and are therefore 'republicans' and that is that. These people have paid lip service to Marxism. They have not one thing in common with Marx and Engels or Lenin. These three destroyed their political opponents it is true. They destroyed them in open debate using the weapons of honest political argument. Smear and distortion were never part of their vocabulary. But the irresponsibility of the WA goes even beyond the bounds of smear. The result of their arguments is to make targets out of trade union officials and militants. Some of the people who cheerfully brand as 'republican' live in Protestant estates. It is their lives this group are prepared to lay on the line. It is criminal irresponsibility.

Union Democracy

"It is important that trade unions take steps to exert control over their representatives on public bodies." (P6) "..trade union branches affiliate to the Belfast Trades Council, and instruct their delegates NOT to vote for Betty Sinclair, Joe Cooper, Sam Armstrong or any candidates that are nationalists first and trade unionists second." (P3)
Spokesmen of the Workers Association and the British and Irish Communist Organisation have attempted to appear as champions of union democracy, as the guardians of the rights of the rank and file. The above two demands, or proposals are what they could be called, are about the most concrete steps proposed for action within the unions.

Unions should affiliate to the Trades Council. With this we concur. But on what basis should affiliation go through? Simply to oust the present leaders! Then this struggle apparently will end! At least we must assume that it will end at this point for there is no mention of any other reasons why unions should affiliate to the Trades Council! Of the multitude of decisions that an effective Trades Council must make in relation to the day-to-day problems of its members not one word.

Trade unions must 'exert control' over public representatives. How? To what ends? Again we are not told. Socialists have long campaigned for democracy within the trade unions. The Militant has consistently raised the demand for the election of all officials subject to recall by the membership. Also we have demanded that no trade union official be paid more than the average wage of a skilled worker in his industry. In this way negotiators and organisers would be forced to do effective work. Their salaries as well as those of their members would be at stake. Such demands do not trouble the minds of the Workers Association and the British and Irish Communist Organisation. Instead they content themselves with issuing the instruction to workers to 'exert control' over his organisations. When these workers ask how this is to be done and around what programme they will be met with silence and be forced to conclude that it is wrong to trouble such great minds with such practical trifles! The WA pamphlet says nothing about how to struggle for union democracy. It says a great deal about the need to oust the 'republicans'. We conclude - this pamphlet is not concerned with union democracy. Its only aim is to ensure Unionist control of the trade unions.

This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.

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