Northern Ireland: A history of missed opportunities

Trade unions and politics in Northern Ireland

On 15 May, after three years of suspension, the Northern Ireland Assembly flickered back to a kind of half life. It was summoned back into existence by a decree of the Secretary of State as a toothless talking shop, with no powers, and will go out of existence altogether in November unless the parties, in effect the DUP and Sinn Fein, agree to share power. Peter Hadden looks at the situation.

A history of missed opportunities

Inside the chamber, the fact that their only purpose for being there was to allow them to continue to collect their salaries and expenses did not prevent the politicians from quickly resuming "normal service". The sectarian pantomime was back in business and has fitfully spluttered on since then.

As the politicians turned up for their first day back at "work", some trade unionists from public sector unions were gathered outside. Some were there to show their opposition to cuts in services and privatisation. But the bulk were not there to protest but to plead with the politicians to do a deal to get the Assembly up and running.

The leadership of Unison armed their members with placards which read simply "politicians – do your duty".

Inside, there was the bizarre spectacle of MLAs ceremoniously lining up to take charge of nothing more than their large salaries. But the sight outside – of trade unionists appealing to these right wing and sectarian politicians to "do their duty" – was, in its own way, equally bizarre.

Trade unionists and working class people face cuts in services and privatisation as well as the prospect of water charges. In workplaces the attempt by employers to impose a "race to the bottom" means a constant assault on real wages and conditions. All this is part of the neo-liberal agenda which is the common platform of governments throughout the advanced capitalist world – and in most of the rest of the world as well.

When they briefly did hold power in the Assembly, the four main parties – the DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP – all embraced neo-liberalism. Ministers from all four parties did the bidding of Tony Blair and privatised services through PPP and PFI schemes. Despite their subsequent denials, they all agreed in principle to the introduction of water charges.

When it comes to the problem of increasing sectarian polarisation and the ongoing threat of sectarian violence, the main parties are part of the problem, not part of the solution. All have a vested interest in making sure that working class people remain divided – otherwise they would be put out of business.

Even if they did manage to cobble together an agreement on power sharing by the 24 November deadline, this would not bring a real and lasting solution to the conflict even a single step closer.

To Sinn Fein and the DUP – as to their, by now, very junior partners, the UUP and SDLP – the division of society into the sectarian camps of unionism and nationalism is not only an unbridgeable divide, it is the "natural order of things". Any new deal between them would only be an agreement on how the sectarian divide can be managed and maintained and how the spoils of government can be carved up between them.

The brief periods when the Assembly was up and running did not see a fall off in sectarianism but were characterised by increased tension and further polarisation. A new Executive would be a non-stop no holds barred Ministerial brawl, especially between Sinn Fein and DUP Ministers, which, in the absence of any alternative, could only give a further twist to the process of sectarian balkanisation. It would not hold together and its collapse would likely create a much more dangerous political vacuum than now exists.

It is this which makes the role the trade unions can play so important. The trade unions, with more than a quarter of a million members, are potentially the most powerful force in Northern Ireland. That power was recently shown in the one day strike of public sector workers against the threatened attack on the local government pension scheme which brought buses, trains and all local government services to a standstill.

It was also repeatedly shown during the Troubles, when strikes in both the public and private sectors brought Protestant and Catholic workers together in common struggle. Significantly, not a single strike over this whole period was broken by sectarianism.

Nor was it only on industrial issues that the capacity of the working class, especially the organised working class, to come together was shown. There were occasions over the past 35 years when the situation edged in the direction of sectarian civil war. On each occasion, it was the resistance of the working class which was the most decisive factor in preventing this.

During the early ‘70s, when tit for tat sectarian killings became almost a nightly occurrence, thousands of shop stewards, often with little or no assistance from the trade union leadership, played a critical role in preventing the violence from spreading to the workplaces.

At the end of 1975 and in early 1976 the passive resistance of the working class to the sectarian violence turned into active opposition in the form of local general strikes called by the Trades Councils in Derry and Newry, and an embryonic Trades Council in Craigavon, against sectarian murders.

This pressure forced the trade union leaders to act. They set up a campaign to mobilise opposition to sectarianism – the Better Life For All Campaign. Initially this campaign had huge support and huge potential but hesitation and inaction by the leadership of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC ICTU) meant that this potential was allowed to fritter away.

Nevertheless a tradition of strikes and mass demonstrations to show the united opposition of the working class to sectarian killings was established. What happened in 1975 and 1976 was repeated many times during the next 25 years. In fact it was the massive demonstrations called by the unions in the early 1990s against sectarian atrocities such as the Shankill bombing and the Greysteel massacre, which provided the real underlying momentum for the peace process.

These events showed that it is the working class, united around common interests, not the paramilitaries, not the sectarian and right-wing parties and not the British or Irish ruling classes, which can offer a way forward.

Yet, despite this, despite the power of the unions and the role union members have played in combating sectarianism, all that the union leadership is able to do in the current situation is passively and impotently look on.

This will not change so long as the union leaders continue to insist that the unions have no independent political role and that their involvement in politics can go no further than one of lobbying the existing parties.

The lamentable decision by the trade union leadership to duck out of politics dates back to the beginning of the Troubles. They withdrew, not just from political action, but from any intervention in the explosive situation that developed during and in the aftermath of the mass movement for civil rights.

They did so to try to avoid having to deal with the issues that were being raised, fearing that if they took a stand on these questions they would open up a sectarian division in their own ranks. In fact, by avoiding these issues, they failed to provide a class alternative to workers and young people on both sides and left the way open to the sectarian organisations and the paramilitaries to fill the vacuum.

Up to this point, most of the unions were affiliated to and gave active support to the Northern Ireland Labour Party which had support in both Catholic and Protestant areas and, through the ‘60s, had begun to shift to the left, away from the one sided "labour unionist" stance it had previously taken. While NIC ICTU was not formally linked to the NILP, it did have informal ties with it.

At the start of the ‘70s this all changed. For example, the NILP suddenly found itself banned from the May Day parades which they, in a joint initiative with Belfast Trades Council, had re-established in 1951 and in which they had participated ever since. At first the NILP tried to get round this by marching several hundred yards behind the main parade, but ultimately had to try to organise their own parade. For the next 25 years or so NIC ICTU officials policed the Belfast May Day parade to ensure that no political banners were carried.

A number of key unions remained affiliated to the NILP but their right wing leaderships played very little role within the party. The NILP leadership shifted to the right, to an out and out "labour unionist" position. Some union leaders who were involved in the party supported this trajectory; the majority did nothing to halt it but rather withdrew from active participation in the party. By 1975 the NILP, which had managed to get 100,000 votes in 1970, was effectively defunct.

Retreat from politics

The decision by the union leadership to retreat from politics meant that throughout the whole period of the Troubles, the working class was left with no political voice. This in turn reinforced the grip of the sectarian organisations, ending with the present position of almost total political polarisation and deadlock.

It meant that the struggles and mass mobilisations of workers on industrial issues and also in opposition to sectarian attacks could not find a political expression. The Better Life For All Campaign was based on a six point declaration dealing with issues such as jobs and housing as well as the right to live free from sectarian intimidation and attack.

These were political objectives which clearly posed the need for political action. One reason why the trade union leadership put no effort into building this campaign was their fear that its development would lead them into political territory where they did not want to go.

During the first years of the 1980s, there was a wave of industrial struggle as workers in Britain and in Northern Ireland moved to resist the first onslaught of Thatcherism. This brought a radicalisation of the working class and a growth in support for socialist ideas. In Britain the effect was to shift the Labour Party dramatically to the left, while in Northern Ireland the developing class consciousness also had an impact.

Within the ranks of the unions support for the building of a new party to represent the working class – at this time expressed as a "party of Labour" – began to develop. Three Trades Councils – Antrim, Derry and Fermanagh took the decision to fight the local government elections in 1981. The candidate in Antrim came very close to being elected.

The union tops, however, did not budge from their "non political" stand and the opportunity to build a party that could unite working class people was missed.

Instead it was Sinn Fein who emerged as a significant political force. In the main their support grew on the back of the hunger strikes and the huge impact the deaths of the prisoners had in Catholic working class areas. But Sinn Fein, who at the time were putting on a "left" face, also benefited from the absence of any party of the working class able to tap into the radicalised mood of the Catholic working class and youth.

In the ‘90s it was the same story. Although this was a decade characterised by downturn in struggle and by a falling back in consciousness, the mass demonstrations against sectarianism organised by the unions did pose the need and provided a certain opportunity for a political initiative to be taken.

For example, the huge demonstrations that followed the Canary Wharf bombing could have provided a launching pad for a trade union based party that could have fought the Forum elections later that year. The success of the hastily formed Labour Coalition and Women’s Coalition in winning seats in the Forum and the Talks shows what a more extensive initiative by the unions could have achieved.

Instead, the refusal of the unions to offer a political alternative to the tens of thousands who took part in these protests handed the initiative back to the sectarian politicians.

For the 2003 Assembly elections, the NIC ICTU did go so far as to publish an Election Charter outlining "a number of demands on behalf of our 230,000 members and their families." In the absence of any candidates or party to fight for these demands, this was a completely empty gesture.

Perhaps in recognition of the absurdity of having a programme but no candidates, the Charter appealed to people to ask any candidates who canvassed them to "subscribe to the objectives of the Trade Union Charter" and gave people a blank petition sheet to fill up with the names of candidates who did so!

Together with UNISON’s equally absurd pleas to right wing politicians to "do your duty" this feeble intervention is the logical and inevitable end result of the cap in hand "no politics" approach that the union leadership, with only a few honourable exceptions, have adopted.

It is also entirely out of sync with the best fighting traditions of the trade union movement. Compare, for example, the bureaucratically stifled May Days of the early ‘70s with the magnificent parade that was held in 1919.

1919 was also a time of political turmoil with the events that led to the Government of Ireland Act and partition. It was also a period of a massive upsurge in class militancy inspired by the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave of struggle that was shaking Europe from end to end.

At the start of the year, Belfast was brought to a standstill for four weeks by the historic strike by engineering workers demanding a shorter working week. The spirit of militancy infused that year’s May Day parade. An enormous crowd of 100,000 weaved their way through the city to a rally in the Ormeau Park.

Unlike their more modern counterparts, the leaders of the movement at that time did not decide to bury their heads in the sand in face of the impending constitutional crisis. Among the resolutions that were passed by the rally was one condemning the British government for intervening against the Russian Revolution. A second resolution called for independent political representation for the working class. One year later, 13 Labour councillors were elected to Belfast Corporation from working class districts across the city.

At the end of the 1950s, an economic downturn resulted in massive lay offs in key industries. One third of Northern Ireland’s linen plants closed between 1958-64. A quarter of shipyard jobs were lost between 1960-64. 10,000 were laid off in Harland and Wolfe in 1961 alone.

There were walkouts and massive demonstrations of protest as a wave of anger swept through working class areas. The NILP and the NIC ICTU leadership were anything but radical at the time but they were forced to reflect the mood.

Role of trade unions

Whereas today’s NIC ICTU leaders, faced with deindustrialisation on a much greater scale, have responded by doing little more than lobbying and trying to organise joint delegations with the local sectarian politicians, speeches by NILP and trade union leaders at that time struck a more radical tone.

In his speech to the 1961 May Day rally the Chairman of the NILP spoke of a "state of war" existing between the “Northern Ireland Tories” (a reference to the Unionist Party) and the working class movement."

Harold Binks, himself no left winger, in his Chairman’s address to that year’s NIC ICTU Conference, spoke in very different terms to today’s leadership: "We are driven immediately to the conclusion that, if the government will not act, we must act politically as well as industrially." Harold Bink’s conclusion of 45 years ago would be lost on all but a very few of today’s trade union leaders.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the situation in Northern Ireland, where the working class had no political voice was, along with that in the United States, an exception in the advanced capitalist world. Now, with the shift to the right of former working class parties such as New Labour in Britain, what was the exception has become the rule. The working class internationally now faces a similar task – to build new mass parties.

A new workers’ party

The right wing trade union leaders are implacably opposed to this. Some, like those in Northern Ireland, are adamant that the unions must steer clear of political action; others argue that their unions should remain affiliated to parties that are now openly capitalist parties like New Labour in Britain or the SPD in Germany.

As workers move into struggle against neo-liberal policies, these old ideas will come under increasing challenge. The issue of building new parties to represent the interests of the working class will come more and more onto the agenda.

Already in a number of countries we have seen the beginnings of this process. In Britain the RMT and the FBU – through a resolution moved by Socialist Party members from the union’s Northern Ireland region – have broken with New Labour. The struggle against social cuts in Germany saw sections of the unions move into opposition to the former SPD government and eventually led to the formation of a new party – the WASG.

The task of launching a new party or a pre-party formation cannot wait until the right wing leadership which dominates the unions either has a change of heart on this issue or is removed. As was the case in Germany, an initiative taken by a section of the unions can have an impact.

There is a responsibility on the left within the unions and, in particular, on those unions that have elected left leaderships to show the way on this question. In Britain, the RMT have already called a conference to debate the idea of new party. The Socialist Party has also launched a Campaign for a New Workers’ Party that is receiving widespread support within the unions. If a broader initiative were now taken by a few key unions, backed by the left within other unions, the foundations of a new party could be laid.

In Northern Ireland, the left is still quite weak within the unions and there is the added complication of sectarianism. However, as struggles develop against cuts, water charges, job losses etc, unions or sections of unions can be shifted to the left. At a certain stage, an initiative taken by one or two left unions, or by a few prominent figures within the unions, could draw community activists as well as socialist groups behind it and could be the first step to a new mass working class party.

An initiative of this character is not likely in Northern Ireland at the moment, given the weakness of the left. But, with the struggles that are now opening on a range of issues and with the growing disgust at the existing politicians and parties, the time for such a step may not be far off.

For socialists the formation of a new party is not the end of the matter. It would immediately pose the question of the programme and methods that party should adopt in order to build support among the working class. Were it based on the approach that currently predominates within the NIC ICTU – of social partnership and collaboration with the government and employers – it would be stillborn. The fate of the NILP, which failed to adopt a socialist and class approach on the national question, serves as a warning.

The task of socialists in Northern Ireland in this period is therefore twofold – to work with others for the establishment of a new working class party, but, at the same time, to build support for socialist ideas and for a socialist solution to the conflict and to organise to fight for these ideas within such a party from the moment of its formation.

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