Workers' Action to halt bigots

Nipsa Anti-Sectarian conference

Lucy Simpson, Militant, November 1989

The Northern Ireland Public Service alliance (NIPSA), which is the third largest trade union in the North, is holding a special delegate conference in November on the issue of sectarian threats to its members.

Supporters of Militant welcome this step by NIPSA. It has always been the position of Militant that the working class, and in particular the unions, are the only force that can challenge and ultimately defeat sectarianism.

The vast majority of people are opposed to sectarianism. This has been demonstrated throughout the past twenty years on many occasions. At no time on these occasions have such actions taken place with the leadership of the trade unions showing the way. Their intervention has always come through pressure of the members demanding that they do something to demonstrate their opposition to sectarianism.

In the mid 1970's, after a bloody campaign of tit for tat killings by the paramilitaries, the rank and file of the trade unions said enough was enough. They took to their feet in their thousands in opposition to the killings. After the assassination of five Catholics and ten Protestants in January 1976, the beginning of mass opposition by the working class developed from the ranks of the trade union movement. In Derry, Lurgan and Newry thousands of workers downed tools and marched. Shops, offices and factories closed. From this decisive intervention from the rank and file, pressure came to bear on the trade union leaders of NIC-ICTU. At that time, as Militant advocated, a one-day general strike would have received a massive echo in the north - not only from the unions but also from the local communities, housewives and youth. This would have had a decisive impact on society. Instead, the leadership, fearing such a movement, refused to give a decisive lead. Instead they launched the Better Life for All Campaign.

This campaign was kept as low key as possible even though repeated calls from the rank and file for strike action continued. There were campaign meetings held, activity in some local areas and a conference took place. But inevitably the mood ebbed as the leadership continually postponed effective action such as a strike. Despite this the opposition from the rank and file did have its effect on the paramilitaries. It wasn't until the hunger strikes at the beginning of this decade that one again saw an increased polarisation and a rise in support for the paramilitaries. It was the Anglo-Irish Agreement that gave loyalist paramilitaries the opportunity to try and recreate the conditions of the early seventies.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by the British and Irish governments was an attempt by British Imperialism to bring stability. The opposite was the case. The death toll increased every year since 1985 when the Agreement was sighed, up to 1988. The aftermath of the Agreement was a set back for the working class. Polarisation of the communities in the north was at its worse since the early seventies. The working class came under constant attack from the paramilitaries, not only in the communities, but also in the workplace. Once again the united action of the working class proved to be the only effective action to put a halt to these attacks.

In August 1986, the UDA issued a threat to Catholic workers in the DHSS office in Lisburn. The response of the workers was a total walk out and solidarity action was taken by other DHSS workers. 4,000 workers in all protested. The UDA were forced to back down. This was a victory for the working class and a clear example of how united action by the working class can stop the paramilitaries in their tracks.

The leaders of the trade union movement, only under mounting pressure from below, launched an anti-sectarian campaign. Many workers have been gunned down since then and many workers threatened, including DHSS workers in Derry. Meanwhile the campaign and its leaders are nowhere to be seen.

A motion put forward by Militant supporters was passed at this year's NIPSA Conference to hold a special delegate conference to discuss sectarian attacks and how best to defeat them. Unfortunately the document produced by the Alliance Council (Executive of the union) to go to the conference falls short if its tasks. The document offers no explanation of the origins of sectarianism and what the Labour movement has done about it over the past twenty years. It makes no appeal for every other union to hold rank and file conferences to discuss this issue. It basically concludes that the 'Peace Jobs and Progress' campaign is the best way for trade unionists to play their part in fighting against sectarianism.

NIPSA members should take this opportunity to challenge the leadership on this document. The conference can decide on concrete steps to challenge sectarianism. Anti-sectarian committees should be established in every workplace. These should be elected by the membership and should be represented on the branch committees. Where there are other unions on-site, these committees should try and achieve representation from every union. Their role would be to monitor al incidents of sectarianism within or from outside the workplace. It is not possible to legislate in advance on what action would be taken in every circumstance.

This could only be decided concretely - but whereas the Alliance Council's document emphasises inactivity, seeking transfers of threatened members, quiet deals with the employers, etc. - the general response of the anti-sectarian committees to sectarian threats or attacks should be to go on the offensive, mobilising the membership in solidarity action.

To deal effectively with sectarianism it is necessary to go beyond the workplaces. The now defunct 'Peace Work and Progress' campaign should be laid to rest. In its place NIPSA should argue within the wider trade union movement for a campaign which sinks genuine roots in every community. What is needed is the setting up of broader anti-sectarian bodies which could link together workers in the workplaces and in the estates. In every area such a body with delegates from every workplace and all bona fide community and tenant organisation should be set up. Its role - to take whatever action necessary to defend workers from sectarian attack. If these bodies were linked up province wide a force powerful enough to curb the bigots would be created.

Alongside these steps a political offensive must also be launched by the trade unions. So long as workers remain divided politically the Tories and the bigots will always retain an influence. This conference should also discuss the formation and building of a mass socialist party in the North. If NIPSA were to make this official policy it could go to the next NIC-ICTU conference demanding that this issue be discussed. If the third largest trade union in the north demanded such a discussion NIC-ICTU would find it difficult to prevent such a discussion.

If such a party was campaigned for effectively by the trade unions, and a clear socialist alternative was posed, the majority of Catholic and Protestant workers could be won to its banner.

For a depressing summary of the bureaucratic handling of the confernce, read Carmel Gates' report following the conference

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