Northern Ireland: Trade Union Defence Force only answer to crisis

Militant, 24th May 1974

Over the past few days Northern Ireland has been paralysed by a So-called ‘constitutional stoppage’ organised by the Protestant Ultras, through the ‘Ulster Workers Council.’

It is clear that the strike is against the wishes of the over-whelming majority of trade unionists of both religions. It has only be enforced by mass intimidation organised by the UDA and other paramilitary groups, as graphically outlined by the Irish Times on Friday 17th May:

“At Malask, fighting started when pickets attacked dayshift workers coming out of the Michelin factory….A shop steward said that most of the dayshift had turned up for work on Wednesday but that most men, [on Thursday] on both shifts, had stayed home. Workers at the factory were warned that any cars left in the car park after 7pm would be burned.”

It should be stressed that this ‘strike’ is more a ‘lockout’ enforced by the ultras. The workers themselves have had no chance to discuss the question and come to a decision in factory meetings and union meetings. The Ulster Workers Council is entirely controlled from the top, with no means for the Protestant workers to take decisions through it.

There were many vicious attacks on the ‘Back to Work’ march on Tuesday 21st May. Len Murray, General Secretary of the TUC, was spat at and the 400 or so trade unionists who tried to march ran a gauntlet of eggs, tomatoes and pieces of metal.

The standpoint of the leaders is seen from Sammy Doyle, a spokesman of the UDA, who is reported to have been ‘pleased with what happened in Dublin’ – referring to the ghastly bombing last week killing over 25 people.

This latest round of violence and intimidation comes after six years of murders and maimings. Over 1,000 have been killed since 1969. But his is nothing to the holocaust of sectarian, religious civil war which hangs over the heads of the workers in Northern Ireland.

Since January six Catholic building workers have been murdered. The recent shooting of two workers in cold blood on a site is an awesome sign of what could come in the next months!

For the blood that has flowed in Northern Ireland the British ruling class must bear the responsibility. They created the religious divisions to keep the workers apart. They fed the Protestant workers on a diet of sectarianism, teaching them to despise and fear the Catholics and look with horror at any prospect of a united Ireland.

Under modern conditions British capitalism would like to see some kind of united Ireland as no longer is the partition of the country in their economic and strategic interests. They would like to move towards a ‘Federal Solution’ under the British umbrella.

It is this which is behind the ‘Council of Ireland,’ set up on the basis of being ‘all things to all men’ – attempting to allay the fears of Protestants while establishing some co-operation between the Governments across the Border.

But, tragically for them, as well as for the workers, the sectarian monster, brought into life and nurtured by the British Imperialists in the past, refuses now to lie down.

The Protestant workers’ fear of being coerced into a capitalist United Ireland is exploited by reactionaries in the leadership of the UWC and the likes of Craig of Vanguard. The same Craig, when a Minister, is reputed to have told a trade union delegation to ‘go jump in the Belfast Lough.’

But the Provisional IRA leadership must also bear responsibility for the present situation. It is true that British Imperialism created this situation, but the bombing campaign of the Provos has deepened the divide between the workers. They bear a responsibility for the reinforcement of sectarianism, 60,000 have been forced to move home in Belfast since 1969, the biggest population displacement in Europe since the war.

Many of the leaders of the Provisional IRA claim that their campaign is ‘not sectarian.’ But ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intention!’ The senseless bombings have enraged Protestant workers and driven them into the arms of the worst enemies such as Craig and Co.

The policies pursued by the Provos are leading in the direction of sectarian civil war. Some of the leadership may believe that out of this will come some kind of ‘united Ireland’ but in reality, with the balance of forces between the Catholic and Protestant populations, it would be more like India at the time of British withdrawal with the mutual slaughter of Muslim and Hindu, millions driven from their homes, and a new partition of the country.

The Catholics would be driven out of Belfast and the Protestants out of the Border areas resulting in the possibility of a new partition with, say, Fermanagh and Tyrone going into the Republic.

The Provo leaders’ aim of a ‘united Ireland’ would be postponed for decades. The suggestion made by one of their supporters in The Times (21/5/74) that the UNO [United Nations] could supervise a solution is hollow. Have they been able to solve the conflicts between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East?

In the desperate situation which has arisen, the leaders of the Labour and Trade Union Movement must also bear a measure of responsibility. The Labour Ministers responsible for Northern Ireland, Stan Orme and Merlyn Rees, have sent the army to remove the barricades and used Tory terminology in denouncing ‘Political strikes!’

Our opposition to the ‘strikes’ must he because they are viciously anti-working class, not because they are ‘political.’

The standpoint of the organisers of this strike can be seen from a spokesman of the UWC who said that anyone who was opposed to the strike ‘must be a United Ireland supporter or a Communist’ or Jim Smyth, who described to Irish Congress of Trade Unions as a ‘Dublin based Republican organisation.’ (Irish Times, 20/5/1974)

But to send the army into power stations would set a dangerous precedent for the movement in the rest of Britain, for use in the event of a General Strike.

The watchword of the Labour Movement must always be to ‘rely on your own power’ not on that of the capitalist state – but the Labour leaders will have to take this course if they remain on the basis of capitalism.

Some attempt to take class action has been launched in the ‘back to work marches’ organised by the Trade Unions. The three or four hundred shop stewards who attempted to march and the hundreds of others who have stood out for class unity on the factory floor and in the most extreme circumstances are the real unsung heroes of the past few years. If the Labour leaders had adopted a bold class approach five years ago the present crisis would not have arisen.

Nevertheless, the turn out was low because of mass intimidation – workers’ estates were blocked off by armed thugs at 6.00am.Who would take their own life and that of the family left behind into their hands and defy such intimidation?

This march was a tremendous initiative, but there could only be a response if the workers were provided with a real means of defence.

The full horror is shown by a statement from Charles Hull, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU: -

“Two days after our conference an active lay representative of one of our unions was murdered…we had union meetings disrupted by armed thugs who robbed those present.” (Irish Times, 9/5/74)

Yet the workers know full well that neither the British Army not the RUC are willing or able to defend them.

Only an armed Trade Union Defence Force would be capable of providing that defence. In the first place the leaders of the unions should take the initiative in calling for conferences of shop stewards, union branches, tenants associations, Labour Parties and Trades Councils to discuss the question of defence against sectarian violence.

An objection is often raised that this would increase the number of arms in circulation. But a section of the working class already have arms – the problem is that they are turned in the wrong direction and that they are in no way under the control of democratic working class organisation.

But to those who oppose the demand for the trade unions to arm themselves, the ‘Back to Work’ marches should provide an object lesson. You cannot make placatory speeches or offer a bunch of flowers to sectarian madmen intent on shooting workers going to and from work! The arming of the trade unions is a minimum step which is now necessary even to prevent the trade unions themselves being consumed by sectarianism.

Reactionaries like Craig are determined to split the unions and create a strictly Protestant trade union movement. They have openly raised the demand for the Northern unions to be separated form the ICTU. Such a split would be disastrous for the working class, further weakening its power in the face of the employers’ onslaught. Already, as Charles Hill said, weekly earning in the North are £6 to £8 lower than in Britain.

Only a class approach can create a movement of both Catholics and Protestants able to eliminate sectarianism forever.

Militant, 24th May 1974.

The series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
is available here.

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