Ireland North: Workers take action against sectarian attacks

Health and postal workers in Northern Ireland were forced to take industrial action last week in protest against sectarian death threats from republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

900 workers in North & West Belfast Social Services Trust went on strike last Thursday (01/08/02) when one of their colleagues received a bullet with their name on it in the post. At an emergency meeting of NIPSA union Branch 705, it was unanimously decided to organise a one-day stoppage, and to call a public rally in Belfast city centre. Socialist Party members played a central role in organising the action. As a result of the workers’ action, loyalist paramilitaries released a statement denying any involvement with any threats.

As part of the protests, over 400 workers attended a rally in the Belfast city centre union building, Transport House, where many workers expressed the importance of workers’ unity against all sectarian threats. Socialist Party member, Kevin Lawrenson, spoke at the end of the rally congratulating his fellow workers for taking a principled stand against sectarianism and demanded that the trade union movement should follow up this initiative by taking independent action against sectarianism.

Also, on Monday 5 August, in Derry city, the Trades Council organised a march from the spot where a bomb planted by dissident republicans killed David Caldwell, a Protestant construction worker. Over 200 people attended the rally at the Guild Hall Square.

City Hall ‘anti-sectarian campaign’

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) have different ideas.

Following an approach by the Northern Ireland Committee of Congress (NIC-ICTU), Belfast City Council announced the launching of an anti-sectarian campaign, with the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, Alex Maskey, at the helm.

The City Council called a demonstration for 2 August, with the support of the churches and CBI (the bosses’ organisation) outside City Hall. Immediately, the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party opposed it for their sectarian reasons.

Many workers see the politicians as being highly selective in their condemnation of sectarianism. Their role has been to condemn "the other side" for attacking "our community" and to refuse to face up to the reality that sectarian violence is not a one-way street.

At the NIC-ICTU consultation meeting to discuss giving support to the council demonstration, Socialist Party members argued that instead of supporting the right-wing sectarian politicians’ so-called anti-sectarian demonstration, the trade unions should independently organise mass action. These politicians are the same people who are opposed to council workers receiving a fair wage and in the Assembly (the local power-sharing government) are implementing Blairite policies of privatisation.

Unfortunately, NIC-ICTU rejected the proposal to organise independent mass action. In the event, less than 2,000 people showed up for the 2 August rally, compared to the 80,000 who showed up to the trade union demo on 18 January 2002.

Socialist Party members ran a street stall in the city centre on the morning of the rally emphasising the need for independent action by the trade unions to oppose all sectarian attacks on both communities. We raised over £430 and sold over 700 special bulletins. Many workers welcomed our initiative, as many found the prospect of seeing the sectarian politicians protesting against sectarianism too much to stomach.

Because of the failure of the ICTU to build for mass independent action, thousands of workers are now facing more threats. Postal workers in Derry went on strike over the weekend against a death threat from loyalists. Health workers in hospitals in Belfast are now under threat from the Catholic Reaction Force and the loyalist Red Hand Defenders. They have now been forced to hold lunchtime stoppages and protests. Sectarian attacks and rioting are still a nightly occurrence. Unless a socialist alternative is built to challenge all forms of sectarianism, Northern Ireland society will continue on the road to deeper sectarian conflict.

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August 2002