NIPSA: Anti-Sectarian Conference

Carmel Gates, Nipsa Broad Left Militant Dec 1989 - January 1990

On 27th November 1989, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance became the first trade union in the north to discuss the issue of sectarianism. This conference was an historic victory for the Left who argued for it and won against the combined opposition of the union's executive and the right wing in the union.

Militant supporters who proposed the motion calling for the conference saw it as a unique opportunity for workers to discuss sectarianism and to put forward a concrete plan for it.

However, the union's executive - the Alliance Council - had other ideas about the purpose of the 'conference'. In an attempt to stifle discussion on the issue of sectarianism the conference was the most undemocratic in the history of Nipsa.

Unlike all other conferences, branches were not allowed to propose motions. Instead the discussion centred on a document produced by the Alliance Council - which delegates could only amend.


This document, although welcomed by the Left as a first step towards tackling sectarianism, fell far short of arming the workers in NIPSA with the ideas and policies necessary to fight the causes of continued sectarianism. The document was instead designed only to show workers how not to respond to sectarian threats.

All the concrete measures proposed by Militant supporters were either opposed by the Alliance Council of ruled out of order. The key debate at the conference and the one which sparked the most discussion was a proposal from the Left to urge the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to set up anti-sectarian committees. These committees, it was proposed, should have representatives elected from the workplaces, bona fide community organisations and tenants groups in every area of Northern Ireland. Acting under the umbrella of the trade union movement, these committees could be linked in action to end sectarianism.

Because of the validity of the arguments of the Left, the right wing could not use any honest means to contest them. Instead they resorted to smears and slanders in an effort to defeat the proposal. One delegate even went so far as to suggest that there does not exist in the North any bona fide community organisations. He went on to argue that NIPSA would have to vet every community organisation to check they didn't have a store of guns and balaclavas! Because of the undemocratic nature of the conference these statements could not even be challenged.

Most NIPSA members were aware that the right wing on the Alliance Council did not want the conference to take place. But most delegates, especially those attending for the first time, were amazed by how blatantly it was bureaucratically manoeuvred. By confusing delegates with lies and half-truths, they managed to turn an historic conference into a farce.

The frustration and anger felt by delegates was summed by at the Militant conference meeting. The meeting resolved unanimously that the issue would not rest here. The campaign to urge the trade union movement to make a stand against sectarianism will be taken back into NIPSA and from these the fight will continue to broaden it out to include very worker in Northern Ireland. Fifty-one copies of Militant were sold.

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An article written preparing for this conference

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