Socialist Party archives - For Workers Unity pamphlet (1974), Chapter 5

Chapter 5

For Workers Unity

The theory of the two nations together with the bulk of the BICO and WA material, is born out of pessimism and despair. Throughout all the zigzags and turns of this tendency since 1969, there runes one common strand - a complete lack of faith in the ability of the working class to come together, They are not the only prophets of gloom in Northern Ireland. Other 'socialists' lean to the Provisionals for succour. Both seek short cuts, easy paths to socialism, by ignoring with the Catholic or the Protestant working class. Neither are concerned with raising the interests of workers as a whole.

Workers unity - in the eyes of such 'socialists' this is a joke. It remains the key to the entire situation. After five years in which workers have been blasted into opposing sectarian camps, in which bloody sectarian killing has been the order of the day, the building of a movement which can being the working class people together more clearly seen as the only way to stop the bloodshed.

The B&ICO disagree. They prefer a 'democratic solution'. In practical terms this means that they are prepared to forgo the task of building a class movement and instead rely on the ruling class. It comes down to support for the policies and methods of British Big Business in Northern Ireland. Thus this group has backed the various initiatives which have come from Westminster including the Sunningdale Agreement (although they also backed the UWC strike to destroy Sunningdale), they support the army in its repressive role and are in favour of internment. In short they have utterly deserted the camp of Marx, Engels and Lenin who taught as a first, most elementary principle that the working class must rely on its own forces, and not look for aid to the state forces of its class enemy.

But above all the BICO have failed to grasp the most obvious conclusion which flows from the turmoil of the last five years - that the British ruling class have no answer to the problems facing the people of Northern Ireland.

British Big Business offers no solution

The British bosses fostered sectarianism in the past. They partitioned Ireland, not to separate two hostile 'nations', but to drive a wedge of bitterness into the ranks of the working class and so impede the development of the labour movement, North and South. British Capital no longer wishes to rule through religious demagogues such as Carson and Craigavon. Because of the opening up of the Southern economy, the growth of trade with that country and the pumping of capital into it, they would prefer to see a united Ireland - on a capitalist basis of course. This was their intention through the period of the sixties and it was reflected in the historic meeting of O'Neill and Lemass. In the way of all plans of the British bosses stand the gigantic fires of sectarianism which were lit and fuelled from Westminster and which refuse to extinguish themselves now that their old stokers no longer require their services.

Governments at Westminster have produced a host of paper 'solutions' to the Northern Ireland problems. 'Initiatives' of one sort or another, White papers and Green Papers have appeared. But valleys of conflict and division cannot be bridged with pieces of paper. The latest proposal for a Northern Ireland Convention will no more 'solve' the problem than did its predecessors.

Beneath the surface of the sectarian carnage workers of both communities struggle to exist in an arena of poverty and virtual destitution. Wages in Northern Ireland are an average of £5 lower than in England. Even the supposedly 'privileged' shipyard workers have been demonstrated to be taking home in some cases as much as £11 per week less than their counterparts across the water. 100,000 houses in NI are unfit for human habitation. 30,000 of these are in Belfast. Chronic unemployment exists in many areas. The dole queue is no stranger to working class families in such towns as Derry, Strabane and Newry. In Ballymurphy [West Belfast], it has been estimated that up to 40% of the males are out of work. (1973 figure)

These are the problems which underlie the situation. In 1968 the civil rights movement gained its mass working class base as a response to the desperate conditions faced by those within the Catholic ghettos. Fear of more unemployment and further poverty lay behind the resistance which developed among Protestant workers to the Civil Rights campaign. A 'solution' to the NI situation means the eradication of these miseries; it means jobs, houses and decent wages for all, otherwise it is no solution at all.

The British ruling class have only one reply to give to the economic demands of the workers - cuts in living standards so that the proportion of the national cake sliced of in profits can be maintained and increased. Wage restraint while prices rocket! Inflation ahs now reached a giddy annual rate of 20%. Economic stagnation while workers idle on the dole! Capitalist economists are now gloomily discussing the prospect of a period of no growth in the economy. Those with the money are now refusing to invest it with the result that the economy is stagnating and, according to the forecasts of the ruling class economists, unemployment is likely to rise to over one and a half million in the next 18 months.

All that the ruling class can offer workers in Britain is an attempt to lower their standard of living. In Northern Ireland a future of poverty, military harassment and no end to sectarianism is about the best prospect they can give. Only the working class can find an outlet. Not the Tories! Not the paramilitary groups! Not the Provisionals whose campaign is doomed to defeat and which can only deepen the polarisation! The labour movement must give an alternative.

Workers can be united

The uniting of Catholic and Protestant workers in struggle is no utopian fantasy. Time after time Belfast's workers have fought side by side; in 1907 under the leadership of Larkin, in 1919 in a virtual general strike over the question of hours of work, in 1932 when unemployed workers in the Falls and the Shankill areas came together against police and army attack.

On a day-to-day basis on the shop floor workers have been and are united. The very existence of the trade union movement is alone enough to answer the arguments of those who dismiss the possibility of united class action. Above all, the fact that amid the last few years of sectarian fighting, a host of strikes have taken place in Belfast, is a sure sign that with further attacks on living standards, working class unity and solidarity is not only possible, it is practically inevitable.

Hardly any section of workers in Belfast have not been forced to take industrial action in the last four or five years. The shipyard men have gone on strike. Engineering workers have joined their colleagues in England on the issue of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers fines. These 'heavy battalions' of labour have been joined by a host of other workers, some of them in professions which have never before seen strike action - postmen, the Ulsterbus maintenance workers, the Mitchelin workers, council workers, civil servants, hospital staff, the list goes on and on. Sectarianism has broken the solidarity of not one f these disputes. A cut back in living standards will mean that, despite the religious hatred, such struggles will mushroom.

Even in the face of the most intense sectarian bitterness, the bud of class unity has not been crushed. Recent years have seen enormous political realignments on both sides. In each community there have been developments towards the Left. Among Catholic based organisations, particularly the Official Republican Movement, there has been a current of class feeling. Countless splits have reduced the Unionist monolith, which for 50 years held solid, to a heap of stones. Every Protestant organisation has experiences splits, some of which have reflected attempts to move to the left, to the establishment of a purely working class movement. The UWC is already divided into a multitude of warring factions; some with the extreme right win ideas of the National Front, while others direct their gaze leftward.

The very confusion which now exists in all established organisations who have a working class base, the tendency for these organisations to split, is a reflection, in a distorted form, of a desire among workers to find a way out. It reveals a certain tiredness among workers of the organisations they have looked to for the past few years.

To-date any leftward tendencies have co me to nothing. They will continue to come to nothing unless a lead is given by the labour movement. No organisation can being workers together other than the Labour and Trade Union Movement. When it fails to provide an alternative workers find they have no other political home except with the sectarian blocks.

Labour must give a class lead

The labour movement has been pushed into the background during recent years. It has lost enormous ground. To rectify this the B&ICO and the WA propose the creation of an Ulster TUC. What of this new organisation once these people get their way and set it up? What should it do to intervene in the Northern Ireland situation? What should it do to offset the attempts of the ruling class to hold down the living standards of its members? How should it intervene in the political arena? Anyone who seeks an answer to these questions in the Workers Association pamphlet is wasting his time.

Yet of the weakness of eh labour movement is to be overcome these are precisely the questions which must be given an answer. Splitting the trade union movement in two is not that answer. Over the past five years the NIC, as with the NILP, has failed because it has preferred to sit back and watch rather than intervene in the situation. In 1968 the leaders of the labour movement took a silent decision that they were not really relevant to the developing trouble. They thought it best to merely sit and wait for 'normality' to return. Consequently Northern Irish workers also decided that they were irrelevant.

Yet there are 263,000 trade unionists in Northern Ireland. In terms of numbers they are the decisive force in the situation. Because this mass of workers has been given no lead from the tops of their movement they have been allowed to dissipate in the direction of a variety of sectarian based groups.

Five years ago the leaders of the labour movement should have seized the initiative. They could then have drawn mass support to a class programme and class action. Then they would have been working under conditions a thousand times more favourable than those of the present. Today they are greatly weakened but still retain the power to intervene decisively.

In 1969 it was the trade unions who used their influence to help keep the peace. An example of what could have been achieved was the mass meeting of 9,000 shipyard workers in August 1969. This meeting condemned sectarianism and was one of the factors which eased the situation in East Belfast. This tenuous unity which arose out of a tenth of lead on the part of the trade unions in 1969, has been blasted asunder by the Provisional IRA and by the activities of the Protestant paramilitary groups.

Only the labour movement has the ability to once again forge a bond between Catholic and Protestant workers. If the key to the situation is the uniting of the working class, this key now lies and for five years has lain in the laps of the trade union and labour leadership.

Only the labour movement can one the one hand end sectarianism and on the other emancipate workers from economic bondage. Only a party based on the trade union can unite workers in political struggle. A campaign should be launched by the trade union leadership centred on two major questions. Firstly to unite workers in defence of their lives against sectarian attack. Under the overall control of the trade union movement a Defence Force should be set up. Already on the shop floor the unions give a limited protection against sectarian thuggery. This should be extended to include protection of workers on their way to and from work and in the working class estates themselves. The British army offers oppression not protection. It must be withdrawn and a workers Defence organisation mobilised to replace it.

Secondly workers must be drawn together in defence of living standards. Demands for a minimum wage of £35 for a 35 hour week and tied to the cost of living , for a crash housing programme, for the nationalisation of all building land and of the building supply industry, for £35 hours work of £35 hours pay, and to make all these possible the Nationalisation of the Banks, Insurance Companies and all major industries and the placing of these in the hands of the working class through a system of democratic workers management, all must be raised and spelt out in an agitational and popular fashion as the subject of a wide campaign.

Linked to this must be the question of a political expression for the working class. The majority of unions in the North are linked through affiliation to the Northern Ireland Labour Party. The present leadership of this party are attempting to steer it away from its class origins in the direction of the sectarian policies recommended by the Workers Association and the British and Irish Communist Organisation. It is the party of the trade unions. It is up to them to intervene, by becoming active within that party at branch, executive and conference levels, to ensure that it fights on the above programme and not on the ideas of the pro-Protestant Workers Association.

Ulster TUC - a final word

The Workers Association pamphlet quite correctly points to and stresses the failure of the Right to work marches organised by leading trade unionists during the Ulster Workers Council strike. From this failure the WA conclude that any attempt at intervention on the part of the trade union leadership is unwanted. The Right to Work marches failed but because it was wrong for the trade unions to intervene, but because, as a lead, it was too little and too late. It was five years too late and it was too little to be effective. Its only chance of success would have been if it had been something more than a negative lead, against the strike, but a positive lead, on the ideas and programme outlined above, giving a class alternative to Sunningdale. Had this been done and had the organisers undertaken to have a force of trade unions stewards, armed with clubs, numerous and strong enough to protect the marchers, it would have signalled not their demise, but the emergence of the trade unions as a force to be reckoned with in Northern Ireland.

An Ulster TUC would in now way assist those who are struggling for class unity and socialism in Northern Ireland. On this basis alone the idea must be rejected. It is highly significant that the proposal has received only the faintest echo within the Organised Labour Movement. It has been raised by a group, whose orientation has been and still is away from the Official Labour organisations, including the trade unions. In 1969, when the B&ICO were attempting to court the Catholics, they assigned no role to the trade unions. Today it is not to the labour movement but to such 'progressives' as the British Tories, the UWC and Messrs Craig, Paisley and West that they look to for a political lead.

The British and Irish Communist Organisation are unique. On the one side they claim to be Marxists, yet on the other, they demand the carving up of working class organisations and work to give these organisations a pro-unionist and sectarian leadership. They are an historical 'curiosity' created by the events in Northern Ireland and the setbacks which the working class have suffered. History created them. History in turn will pass them by. Their ultimate fate - to be a footnote in the history of 'loyalism'.

The future of Ireland is in the hands of the working class. Standing together it will be the working class who write the next chapters of Irish history.





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