Northern Ireland: Opposing austerity and sectarianism

Belfast ‘Socialism 2012’ debate and discussion event a great success

More than 120 trade unionists, community and student activists participated at ‘Socialism 2012’, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 27 October, in what was an excellent day of debate and discussion.

The event was hosted by the Socialist Party. Gary Mulcahy remarked in opening the day that the event was intended to "bring together those opposed to the austerity and sectarianism of all the main parties in the Assembly to discuss how a socialist, working class alternative can be built in Northern Ireland."

The first session was a lively debate entitled, ‘Austerity: A price worth paying?’ between Daniel Waldron from Socialist Youth and Bill Manwaring, Chair of the Northern Ireland Conservatives. While many people welcomed the participation of local Tories in the debate, there was no holding back from the floor as speaker after speaker gave testimonies of the devastation cuts and austerity was causing to ordinary working people.

Billy Lynn, a NIPSA activist and Socialist Party member, accused Manwaring of lying when he commented on prisoners being given social security payments and added that the majority of people who will be hit by cuts to welfare are working people.

When UNITE nursing member Hazel Devine challenged Bill Manwaring on so-called ‘welfare reform’ he had to concede that she was right. He accepted that the new system discriminated in particular against people with mental health problems.

Domhnall O’Cobhthaigh from Fermanagh and Jim Rutherdale from East Belfast both spoke of the recent tragic waves of suicide in their areas and linked the despair that some suffer to the lack of prospects and jobs and austerity.

Without a credible defence of austerity, a local Tory challenged Daniel Waldron to put forward an alternative. Daniel exposed the massive waste under capitalism, where trillions are lying idle in offshore accounts of the rich and big business, while millions are jobless. Daniel demanded that this wealth be used to invest in socially useful projects, such as supplying adequate, decent social housing and investing in decent public services which could create tens of thousands of jobs across the North, very quickly. He also continued to make the point that there was no solution to the economic and social problems without going beyond capitalism and argued the case for a socialist society which would end the profit motive in order to develop the economy and society.

‘Tearing down the peace walls – How can sectarianism be overcome?’

The discussion which followed – ‘Tearing down the peace walls – How can sectarianism be overcome?’ was a fascinating discussion. The hall was addressed by Ciaran Mulholland from the Socialist Party and Tommy McKearney, an ex-republican prisoner, who recently published a book, ‘The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament’.

Tommy began by analysing how imperialism consciously created and exploited sectarian division in Ireland over centuries in order to divide the people of Ireland and maintain its rule.

Tommy’s analysis that when the country was partitioned a Northern state was created which was based on sectarianism and discrimination against the Catholic population was commented upon from several speakers, including Ciaran. Speakers agreed that a Northern sectarian state had been established, but that a sectarian state had also been established in the South, where the Catholic Church had a dominant position, with massive political influence in that state.

Tommy also emphasised the importance of recognising that conditions had changed in Northern Ireland. The old unionist hegemony was no longer in place and a new form of administration was currently residing over a sectarian carve-up rather than genuine power-sharing.

Ciaran Mulholland described how the ‘peace process’ has failed to deliver for working class Catholics and Protestants, and that sectarian division has actually increased.

A point of difference was expanded by Ciaran on the question of whether the creation of the Provisional IRA was inevitable or not. Ciaran gave a brief outline of how the civil rights movement and a growing labour movement had developed in the 1960’s, inspired by international revolutionary upheaval in France 1968, the struggles against the Vietnam war and the black civil rights movement in the US. Ciaran argued that an opportunity to develop a socialist alternative, which could have fought the unionist establishment and the state, rejected the sterile politics of the old Nationalist Party, while uniting Catholic and Protestant workers and youth, was missed.

The refusal of the leadership of the trade unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party to give a lead against repression, sectarianism and to fight for a socialist alternative allowed right-wing middle class Catholic forces, personified by the former leader of the SDLP, John Hume, to transform the civil rights movement. It became a movement for rights for Catholics, thereby cutting across the potential for a united working class alternative.

Many speakers spoke of the need for the labour movement to campaign against sectarianism, including establishing co-ordinating anti-sectarian initiatives in local communities. Some speakers attacked the role of groups on the Left, such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, for their support for the Provisional IRA’s previous armed campaign and calling for people to vote for Sinn Fein in the past.

Maria Caddell, a pro-choice activist representing the Belfast Feminist Network, addressed the hall on the question of abortion rights in Ireland. Maria convincingly argued that while the recent opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast was to be welcomed, it was not a solution. Abortion is a class issue, and until full abortion rights are provided through the NHS, the issue needs to be highlighted.

Impressive platform of speakers

The final debate of the day was on the question of whether it was, ‘Time for a new working class party?’ An impressive platform of speakers spoke on the need for working class political representation, with most agreeing that a new party must be built, based on the trade union movement and young people. Speakers included, Gayle Matthews from the PCS union, Gerry Grainger from the Workers Party, Padraig Mulholland, the President of the main public sector union, NIPSA, Jimmy Kelly, the Unite Regional Secretary, Joe Higgins TD (MP in Irish Republic) and Carmel Gates from the Socialist Party.

Gerry Grainger stated that it was not time for a new party, instead arguing that what was needed was a political party based on removing capitalism and for genuine co-operation on the Left. Gerry was alone on the platform in opposing the need for a new party.

Padraig Mulholland responded that the objective need for a new party exists. All the parties in the Assembly are carrying out austerity measures and have an interest in maintaining sectarian division. Padraig pointed out those socialists who have been campaigning for the need for a mass party of the working class have never argued against the need for a Marxist, revolutionary party. Such a party should play a central role in the re-development of a mass political voice for the working class and win people to the need for socialism.

Jimmy Kelly from Unite spoke passionately on the need for workers to organise in the workplace, in the communities and politically to fight the attacks from the bosses and governments.

The overwhelming sentiment was that this was only the beginning of a real debate which will now be spread into the ranks of the trade union movement, workplaces and communities. It was emphasised that a new party cannot be wished into existence but would come from a new wave of ordinary working people entering struggle and reaching the conclusion that a working class political voice is needed. The role of socialists in the meantime is to champion the need for a new party to unite the working class and youth against the local ‘power-sharing’ Assembly parties’ right-wing, sectarian agenda.

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November 2012