Militant, January 1972


One answer - Workers Unity

On very few occasions has the religious polarisation in Northern Ireland been greater than at present. With the lingering possibility of a religious bloodbath never too far in the background, it is understandable that disillusion and despair have seeped their way into the working-class movement. Even many active trade unionists and members of the Labour Movement have lost faith in the possibilities of building a united class movement. It is the history of Ireland, most especially the history of the Irish working-class movement, which speaks out against pessimism. A common hack interpretation of Irish history since the Williamite Wars is of a long inexplicable succession of religious feuds, something 'Particularly Irish'. Connolly, in a number of his writings, treats such an interpretation with the scorn it deserves.

In fact, religious divisions have been overcome many times in the past. The 1798 rebellion stands out as a landmark in this respect. Under the leadership of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, the Irish petit bourgeoisie and peasantry, both the Presbyterians of Antrim and Down and the Catholics of Wexford and elsewhere, rose together against the subjection of their country to the interests of the landlords and capitalists of England. These traditions of unity in action have been repeated time after time, most especially during this century with the emergence of the working class as an independent force.

1907 Strike

In 1907, the Belfast dockers, led by Larkin, united behind them large sections of the oppressed of the city in a movement which shook the already tottering Tory-Unionist establishment to its very foundations. First the dockers, then the carters and finally the coalmen came out in a dispute that centred on the basic issue of the right to organise.

A measure of the extent of the sympathy for the strikers was the reaction of the police. When Larkin pointed out at a strikers' meeting that the police were being used against them were working 18 hours a day and not receiving a penny extra for it, the flame of revolt was kindled. A mutiny in the barracks was only finally suppressed when almost the entire Belfast force was moved to country areas.

In order to undermine the solidarity of the strikers, the employers resorted to their favourite tactic, divide and rule. The "Employers' Protection Association" and the Belfast press poured out no end of bigoted filth in an attempt to divert the movement. Larkin, because he was a Catholic, was denounced as an agent of Rome, while at the same time, attempts were made to shake the confidence of the Catholic strikers in the Protestant members of the strike committee. All the efforts of the employers exploded in their faces.

"Orange" Split

Nothing better illustrates this than the stand made by the Independent Orange Order during this dispute. Born out of the ultra-bigoted Belfast Protestant Association, the Independent Orange Order drew its support from the working class Protestants. Just as Ian Paisley today has won much of the working class support once enjoyed by the Unionists, so the Independent Orange Order and its predecessor reaped the rewards of the disgust felt by the workers of Belfast for the Conservative policies of the Grand Lodge.

Throughout their propaganda there runs a basic class current, the attacks made on the Orange leaders as merchants, JPS, etc. is an example. Long before the 1907 dispute, the orientation of the Independent Orange Order had swung 180 degrees away from its bigoted roots. During the July 12th celebrations which coincided with the 1907 strike, the meeting of the Grand Lodge did not even mention the strike. At the same time, the Independent Orange Order at their traditional meeting not only passed a motion pledging solidarity with the strikers but also collected 50 for the strike fund. Throughout the dispute, Lindsay Crawford and other leaders of the Independent Orange Order played an active role in assisting the strike committee.

After the defeat of the strike, the Independent Orange Order eventually collapsed. But the Protestant workers did not immediately return to their old masters. Class traditions are not so easily shaken off. Most, left without a political direction, turned towards the Labour Party, a fact which gives a good indication of the possibilities of winning the Paisleyite workers to a class programme which will open up in the future.

In 1919, Belfast was in the front line during the struggle for a reduction of the working week. In the longest and most bitter dispute in the city's history, the engineering and shipyard workers and corporation employees held out for a month in support of their demand for a 44-hour week. During that time the city was without gas, electricity or trams. Industry was brought to a standstill. 20,000 had to be laid off, adding to the 40,000 who were on strike. Had the transport workers joined the strikers, a general strike situation would have existed.

In more ways than one, the shade of 1907 was raised. Protestant and Catholic stood side by side against their common class enemy. Yet it was not for want of effort on the part of the employers that solidarity was maintained. The press repeated the slanders of 1907, jailing of the strike committee, etc. The leaders of the Orange Order joined with the bosses in attempting to cripple the strike.

Early in the dispute they issued an appeal to their members who were involved, urging them to return to work and negotiate peacefully. But the reservoirs of reaction at the hands of the ruling class did not succeed in provoking religious terror. Even the members of the Orange Order on the strike committee joined with their comrades in denouncing the intervention of the Grand Lodge.

It was only with the use of troops and after the defeat of the movement in Britain, that the workers of Belfast conceded defeat. The mood of militancy however lingered. On May Day in 1919, months after the return to work 100,000 took part in the march through Belfast. As in 1907, the workers who had tested their class power, if only for a period, looked for a political lead, not to the champions of 'Protestantism' but towards the Labour movement.

In the 1920 Corporation elections, out of the 20 Labour candidates nominated, 13 were returned, significantly enough the candidates for Shankill and St. Annes, both of whom had been members of the strike committee, topping the poll.

In the late '20s and early '30s the growth of the Unemployed Workers' Movement heralded a new era in which class issues took precedence. The international crises in capitalism affected the northern economy with a vengeance. Shipbuilding, linen and farming all slumped dramatically, creating a vast army of 100,000 unemployed.

For the bosses, desperate measures were required to safeguard their position. As with the early movements and in the early twenties, bigotry was seized upon as their most effective weapon. It is no idle coincidence that this period witnessed the abolition of proportional representation, the provocative speeches of the Unionist leaders and the formation of the Ulster Protestant League which adjured its supporters to have nothing to do with Catholics, most especially not to employ them.

In an orgy of bigotry, the paid agents of capital attempted to instil a 'colon' mentality into the minds of Protestants. But to the unemployed Protestants, the squalid assurances of their leaders proved no substitute for a job, decent wages and decent conditions. Unity in the struggle against unemployment culminated in 1932 when an unemployment march was batoned away form the city centre into the Falls area, an attempt to paint the movement as purely Catholic and use the Protestants to help crush it. However, instead of helping the police instigate a religious pogrom, the people of the Shankill joined hands with the Catholic workers in beating off the police attacks.

Class Solidarity

Tim Pat Coogan in his book on the IRA quotes one member of the army council recollecting on their intervention: "WE put guns into the hands of Orangemen to use against the B-specials". As late as 1934 the basic class ties remained. When socialists around the Republican Congress groupings formed a James Connolly club for the unemployed of Belfast, support was forthcoming from Catholics and Protestants.

A large contingent form the Shankill Road took part in that year's Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown, marching under banners saying "Break the connection with capitalism", and "Connolly's message our ideal". From this the mood of the advanced workers of the city can be surmised. Criminally, however, the antics of the old IRA at Bodenstown only helped to reinforce the old divisions. Bitterness in the republican movement remained between the IRA and the various socialist groups who had broken away from it and eventually formed the Republican Congress.

At Bodenstown, the hostility over spilled into violence when the Congress group was attacked by the Tipperary IRA. The resulting battle inevitably turned into a fight between the Tipperary Catholics and the Protestants from the Shankill. No one incident better illustrates the way in which the tactics of sections of the republicans can successfully alienate even the best of the Protestant workers.

1969 Joint Committees

These are only the most outstanding examples of unity in action. Contrary to the views of many people today, they are not mere drops in an ocean of bitterness. During these periods, the class solidarity, which is always present at least as an undercurrent, shows itself most vividly to the fore. Today the definite signs of solidarity are clearly only straws in the wind. But despite this, real potential did exist for the building of a strong working class movement capable of counteracting sectarianism and imposing its own solution.

In August 1969 this was clearly shown. Weeks of bloody fighting in West Belfast preceded the intervention by the British Army. During this period and after, working class groups took the initiative in protecting their own areas. As Hooker Street, Butler Street, the Falls and other areas burned, street committees of Catholics and Protestants wer et up in one district after another.

On August 6th it was reported that 40 volunteers were patrolling the Catholic Bone area, and the surrounding Protestant streets in Oldpark. By August 15th such groups existed in the Ardoyne, Andersonstown, Suffolk, East Belfast and the York Street areas, to name but some. In this way, religious bloodshed and massive intimidation was avoided at least in these areas. In East Belfast the attempts of the intimidators who delivered 'Get Out' leaflets were crushed by the prompt action of the 100-strong group of vigilantes whose reply was "Stay Put - We will protect you".

A meeting of 9,000 shipyard workers organised on August 15th by shop stewards in the yards successfully prevented the sectarian poison returning to the yards. In this the basic class sense of the workers was revealed. This remains true, despite the fact that the meeting was addressed by Roy Bradford or that it applauded the arrival of the soldiers. A condemnation of sectarianism by these men was not something which suddenly appeared out of the sky, but was the result of years of successful trade union organisation and co-operation on the shop floor.

The absence of a strong Labour movement from Northern Ireland is not due to the failure of the working class to struggle. It is a result of the failure of one successive set of leaders after another. Nothing else explains the collapse of the 1920 movement into the pogroms of the early '20s or the collapse of the unemployment movement into the bloodbath of 1935. In the same way, the failure of the leaders of the Labour and trade union movement to give a class lead during the events of 1969 and earlier explains the degeneration from that period to today's fighting.

Need for socialist policies

In 1969 the Militant fought for socialist ideas as the only solution to the economic problems, the root cause of all the violence, and for the replacement of the troops with a trade union defence force capable of combating sectarianism. Had these ideas been fought for by the Labour leaders, had the republicans directed their forces towards the Labour movement on such a class programme, the outcome would have been entirely different.


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