Ireland North: Strike against sectarianism

80,000 turned out in Belfast, despite the wind and rain, to support the trade union demonstration against sectarian attacks. This was bigger than any of the previous anti sectarian trade union rallies that have been held during the Troubles.


The Socialist Party and its forerunners in Northern Ireland have consistently campaigned for working class unity and the struggle for socialism as the only answer to the sectarian division that is part of every day life. Through patient work in often extremely difficult and polarised conditions they have built a base in the trade unions and amongst young people. Despite the pressure of the sectarian paramilitary organisations and their political counterparts the Socialist Party has maintained a base of those workers and youth who are prepared to stand up to sectarian propaganda in their communities. 

Peter Hadden, from the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland  gives a background to and an account of the historic 18 January demonstration of workers and youth from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds against the rise in sectarian division, death threats and killings in the North.

CWI online

Northern Ireland Strikes against sectarianism

Outside Belfast there were other packed rallies, especially in Derry where over 10,000 thronged the Guildhall Square. Thousands also turned out in Omagh, Newry, Enniskillen, Cookstown and Strabane.

This was a colossal demonstration of the power of the working class with perhaps 100,000 participating in total. The turnout reflected the anger of workers, Catholic and Protestant at the murder of Daniel McColgan, a young postal worker shot dead by the UFF as he turned up for work, and at the threats that were issued to all Catholic postal workers and to all Catholic staff working in schools.

This, on top of the nightly sectarian fighting, the constant attacks on Ambulance personnel, Fire-fighters, bus drivers and on school children, Catholic and Protestant, travelling to and from school, were a step too far for most people.

A week before the demonstration the teachers unions, under intense pressure from the members, decided to take some form of action. Then, when Daniel McColgan was murdered, postal workers gave a lead by immediately walking out.

The pressure built on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) leadership to act. They issued a call for a twelve hour strike to start at mid day on Friday 18 th. There was an immediate and overwhelming response from workers. Teachers, in supporting the call, wanted to know why their union leaders were not going further, why they were expected to work under threat, why the strike was for a half day and not a full day.

Thousands of postal workers turned out on the Tuesday for the funeral of their murdered colleague. Later that day a thousand turned up for a mass meeting which decided to maintain the strike until the death threat was lifted. There was not a single voice raised against this at the meeting.

Within hours there was the absurd comedy of the UFF – who had issued the threat using the cover name of the Red Hand Defenders – instructing the RHD to disband. The following morning there was a statement from the RHD saying they had disbanded! It may have been farcical but it showed that determined and united action by the working class can isolate the bigots.

The Friday rallies would have been even bigger had the unions not started to back off from the call they had made for a strike. Most unions failed to issue clear instructions to their members. Rather than organise for a complete shut down some negotiated a two-hour break. In some workplaces officials reached agreement with management that production would continue while a token delegation would have permission to attend the rallies.

But the confusion sown by the leadership did not deter the rank and file. Having heard the initial call from the top, workers went ahead and organised the strike from below. The backbone of all the rallies was the postal workers who turned out in force. There were also organised contingents of Teachers, Firefighters, hospital workers, shop workers and many many more.

The mood on the rallies was one of determination. There is an understanding that the sectarian polarisation is greater than ever and that what is happening across North Belfast could spread to other areas.

There is also an realisation that the sectarian politicians who sit around the table in the Stormont Executive have no answer, that the army and police can’t stop what is going on and that it is down to ordinary people to act before it is too late.

Workers at the rallies were looking for answers as to how to take the campaign forward. The Socialist Party intervened in force, especially in Belfast, and our leaflets and papers were snapped up, despite the miserable weather which quickly reduced papers to mush. Queues formed in front of our leafleters who managed to distribute 7000 leaflets. We sold 400 papers on the day – this on top of another 400 sold the day before and the day after.

Our material spelt out a clear message that the campaign should now be taken to the local areas with meetings between local trade union representatives and local community organisations. This could be followed by mass meetings and protests to mobilise people in the communities to put a stop to the attacks and to defend those providing services.

Unfortunately no clear message came from the platform at the main rally. In fact because there was no proper PA system 90% of those who turned up in Belfast heard nothing.

Instead of calling for an independent campaign the union leaders have followed the rally with an appeal to the "social partners" – the churches, employers and government to take things forward. But the strength of the working class when it acts alone, under its own banners, has been shown. The trade union leadership may not have drawn any lessons from this but big sections of the rank and file have.

The need for the campaign to continue was clear within hours of the rally. Despite this huge show of strength on the streets it was sectarian business as usual. Over the weekend the petrol bomb attacks continued in Belfast and elsewhere. Catholic houses in North Belfast were attacked on the Saturday night. The following evening the home of a 76 year old Protestant man was firebombed.

That night firefighters were attacked in North Belfast and three injured. Buses bringing physical handicapped children and those with severe learning difficulties to a tabernacle in North Belfast were also attacked and some of the kids left traumatised.

The town and city centre rallies have shown that it is the working class who have the power to isolate and defeat the bigots. That power must now be used with the communities to call a halt to what is happening.

School Students

Socialist Youth responded to the attacks on school students by launching a new campaign – School Students UNITED Against Sectarianism. In the days leading up to the rally SSUAS leafleted about a dozen schools in Belfast calling on students to come out.

On the day about 70 School Students from a number of schools marched with the teachers and the postal workers to the rally. SSUAS is now discussing further protest action if the attacks on school buses and protests at schools start up again.

Socialist Party meeting

70 people turned up to a very successful Socialist Party meeting immediately after the Belfast demonstration. Union activists from the FBU and Irish National Teachers Organisation joined Socialist Youth and Peter Hadden and Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party on the platform.

Across the north

Socialist Party members played a leading role in organising some of the demonstrations outside Belfast, especially in Cookstown, Enniskillen and Omagh. Four members were platform speakers. Five members appeared on the ITV and BBC news, either interviewed or shown speaking from the rally platforms.

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January 2002