No power sharing - no coalition

Independent programme for Labour

Workers unite against repression

Bridget O'Toole, Coleraine Northern Ireland Labour Party, Militant Irish Monthly, Nov. 1973, issue 18

It is a far cry from the comfortable surrounding so the Northern Ireland Assembly to the wintry compound in Long Kesh, but in both places there has been a dialogue between groups whose political aims seem entirely opposed.

What goes on in the Assembly is fully reported in the press - at present a very tense and delicate kind of dialogue. Less easy to discover is what takes place between loyalist and Republican prisoners in the Kesh.

There are rumours that those UVF members who prefer not to be separated from republicans are 'socialist orientated' as distinct from the more right wing UDA.

At the same time rumours circulating about a workers' Ulster Citizens' Army are confirmed most strongly when some other loyalist group condemned them as 'communist'. What seems very likely is that in the joint compound as in some seats of the Assembly certain groups are stressing their common social needs.

Both the SDLP and Unpledged Unionists have stated openly that great social injustices exist in both sections of the community and they suggest that the interests of the working class are better represented than in the past.

For the internees, the social injustices will be glaringly obvious - whether they are going to be righted by the Assembly may be a different matter.

The Militant Irish Monthly has carried frequent articles dealing with the economic exploitation of both Catholic and Protestant workers. At present this is being intensified with phenomenal price rises in all the basic necessities of life and attempts by governments in Ireland and Britain to tie the hands of the workers. But we also see evidence that the working class all over Ireland is prepared to move in a united fashion on the question of wages and living and working conditions.

In Belfast and Dublin tenants protest against the imposition of ring road schemes. Busmen in Dublin have taken action against the huge amount of overtime expected by CIE, teachers in County Mayo have refused to work in adequate schoolrooms, in Derry the shop floor workers at Molins have won a 33% rise, bringing them for the first time into parity with their counterparts in Britain. (In the past they were earning 21 while workers in England earned 31 for less skilled work.)

Instead of accepting the way things are decreed by government or employers, workers are now asking "Why should we work all hours of the night to get a living wage? Why should we be paid less than other people doing the same work? Why should we live and work in bad conditions?"

In the North, trade unionists are not prepared to sit down under phase 3 - pay claims are pushing ahead. It was clearly shown that Phase 2 meant nothing for the low-paid but rising prices.

The Coalition in the 25 Counties in which the Labour Party is in the minority is simply a more acceptable way of carrying thorough the policies of the capitalists. At the Irish Labour Party Conference, Dr Noel Browne expressed his greatest hope in the changing attitudes of the ordinary people, given as he put it "a good socialist leadership - nothing will stop them". It is this which is the greatest need in both parts of Ireland at the present; without it the economic struggles can only chip away at the rocks of Imperialism and attempts at bridging sectarianism will founder.

Move to Left

It is for this reason that the Labour movement must take a clear, independent position on all issues. Power sharing and coalitions may seem for many the humane way out. For a while people may have hopes in the Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition and in the Assembly. But it is the serious duty of all socialists to point out the shortcomings of these and strengthen the labour movement as an independent force. This is not a question of 'doctrinal purity' or abstentionist politics.

A coalition can make a National Wage Agreement look reasonable when what it amounts to is a fall in real wage as prices soar. A 'liberal' coalition can bring in repressive measures because those who would oppose them have their hands tied.

In the North while Unionists and SDLP members are talking to each other, the Army has a free hand. Other pages of this issue show the intensity and extent of repression at present.

The failure of the Labour movement to take a stand against the danger of repression, terrorism and sectarianism is also part of the desire to be thought of as 'reasonable'. The Coalition mentality, will never do anything to alter the real relationships in our society.

It lay behind the defeat at the Southern Irish Labour Party conference of a socialist motion calling for workers' defence force of Catholic and Protestant workers, organised through the trade union movement. Those who opposed it talked of 'taking the gun out of Irish politics', but as the proposer, John Throne, pointed out, are they prepared to take the Free State and British army guns out of Irish politics?

The debate on the mines at the conference, like the nationalisation motions at the British Labour Party conference, reflects a movement to the left which must be given direction by the leaders. Saying, "Labour must wait until the people are ready to vote for socialism", is to betray this movement.

The leaders of the labour movement must make their position clear on the questions of nationalisation, wages and employment in both parts of Ireland and give a decisive lead to the working class. In the North they must show themselves as a strong and viable alternative to the SDLP and the Unionists, an independent alternative to which the working class Catholics and Protestants can turn.

This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
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