Militant Irish Monthly, June 1974, No. 25.

After the UWC

End Sectarianism: Trade Unions Must Lead

The recent developments in Northern Ireland have demonstrated that any 'solution' of British capitalism can have no lasting character. The Sunningdale Agreement was just a so-called solution.

Io the 53 years since the foundation of the Northern Ireland state British Imperialism has come full circle; from encouraging the formation of a sectarian state to vilifying the ideology and advocates of that form of capitalist rule. Imperialism wants to unite the political representatives of capitalism in Ireland, Northern and South, in order to facilitate their rule over the economy of the country as a whole.

It is in this context that the strike of the loyalists mist be seen. The 'strike' which began on May 15th as a protest against the Sunningdale Agreement in fact had its origins in the right wing representatives of Loyalism, the Vanguard, Democratic and Official Unionists with their armies, to re-establish the old sectarian rule of Stormont.

Their demand for 'fresh elections' was based on the belief that men like Paisley, Craig and West and the others of the 11 elected to Westminster on February 28th would be returned to power.

When the Assembly vote in favour of 'Power Sharing' and the Sunningdale Agreement was passed on May 14th the wheels of intimidation began to move. Preparations had been made in the shipyards, aircraft manufacturing plants and electricity stations.

Sections of the power workers were brought under the influence of the Ulster Army Council, an alliance of Protestant armies including the UVF, UDA and ex-B Specials.

First came the emergency power cuts.

Some factory meetings were held the following day, but it was only by the massive intimidation by members of the UVF ad UDA which succeeded in closing the factories. A meeting held at Harland and Wolff was attended by 500 out of a workforce of about 10,000. Of these, only 100 voted to hear an Ulster Workers' Council speaker who issued threats that workers cars would be burned out if they if not vacate the yard. Such threats were repeated across the North.

Lock Out

The strike leaders had other aims, They wanted to break the unity of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, a body uniting trade unionists, North and South of the border.

Who is on the Ulster Workers' Council? Glenn Barr, chairman of the co-ordinating committee between the military groups and the UWC itself, is a leading member of Vanguard and the UDA, both of which organisations have taken part in and encouraged the random killings of Catholic workers.

Gibson, a leading member of the UVF, an organisation which has taken responsibility for the random bombing of Catholic pubs and the murdering of workers on their way to and while at work.

Sammy Doyle, a political spokesman for the UDA, who applauded the bombing in Dublin which killed 27 people and which took place on the same day as the UWC was giving its ultimatum to Rees.

Jim Smyth, an -ex-leader in the Loyalist Association of Workers, an organisation built up on the principle of separation of Protestants from their Catholic brothers on the shop floor.

Billy Kelly, who said in a speech in Derry on May 23rd; 'The upper and middle classes are behind us 100%…the ladies and gentry of Fermanagh and Co. Down are with us.'

These men and others, arose as the so-called leaders of the Protestant working class. Amongst their spokesmen were Craig and West, two rich right wing Tories.

But irrespective of the motives of the leaders, the action which led to the downfall of the Executive and to the virtual shutdown of industry in the Province, had an inner mechanism of its own.

When the collapse of the Executive was imminent, the majority of Protestant trade unionists who would have resisted the brute force of these anti-working class Loyalist organisations, lent their sympathy to the general movement.

The strike did not result from mass meetings at the factories. In many cases it was a lockout by the management. The cutback of power ensured the closure of factories in Derry.

Once power had been cut off production came to a halt at Harland and Wolff and Courtaulds, Northern Ireland's two biggest employers. In Ballymena, Co. Antrim, Gallagher's tobacco factory sent all its 2,500 workers home 'until further notice.'

The level of intimidation which accompanied these measures was illustrated by the murder of two barmen in Ballymena on May 24th for defying the strike, during a rampage by sectarian thugs through the towns of North Antrim.


In Larne, one of the leaders of the 'Workers' Council' was a garage owner, who happened also to be one of the few with the concession to remain open during the strike. Deliveries for his business from the port were also allowed through.

UDA and UVF vigilantes supervised the petrol stations. Hey stopped and questioned motorists and passers-by on the roads. They issued passes. They controlled to a large extent the distribution of supplies in the Protestant areas.

Though this was the background to the movement, its process of development has nevertheless raised questions which have caused upset in the minds of the capitalist class. Work ceased in electricity, gas, fuel, water, transport and sewage. Even grave-digging stopped.

Shops closed down. Nurses, doctors, postal workers and businessmen turned up at the UWC headquarters at the Vanguard premises asking for special passes which would allow them access to the barricaded streets.

Behind the barricades a crude system of social welfare was set up, as in the IRA no-go areas in 1970 and 1971.

The action demonstrated that without the support of the working class, without the wheel of industry being run by the workers, the capitalist state is powerless. The power of the capitalists and their political parties in the last analysis rests purely and simply on the workers' willingness to accept it.

But these laws of class society which could have provided a basis for uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in a struggle for a common end became a weapon in the hands of the reactionaries as a means of splitting the class.

Factories closed. Workers were being told to strike in order to put into power Loyalist as opposed to Faulknerite representatives of British capitalism! Pickets consisted, not of workers from the factories, but of armed thugs from the UVF and the UDA.

Shop stewards' committees, factory committees, trade union branches, trades councils and all the organisations of the working class which have been built up through decades of struggle played no role. In place of the organisations of the class, arose Paisley, Craig, West and the UWC, who are the enemies of the Labour Movement.

The first significant move to unite the working class in the face of the sectarian onslaught was agreed upon when 350 shop stewards and trade unionists met in Belfast on Saturday May 18th. The meeting was called by trade unionists in the electrical supply industry, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU. It was attended by shop stewards and representatives of almost every union. They decided to lead their members in a march back to work on May 21st. Only six of those present voted against the holding of the march.

The shop stewards meeting did not call for police or army protection for their march. They were relying on the strength of numbers of the trade union movement to break the sectarianism.

The Labour leaders should then called a full conference of the organised working class movement, not just to discuss the strike itself, but to draw up an independent policy on the question of Sunningdale. For without an independent policy, not alone on the issue of Sunningdale, but on all the other issues such as wages and conditions, which could galvanise behind them the mass of Protestant and Catholic workers, the march was destined to be what it in fact became, a failure.

200, mainly trade unionists, marched through Harland and Wolff gates, after having been repeatedly attacked and spat upon. 20 others marched to the Castlereagh industrial estate.

The Army

The organisers of the march raised but one slogan. 'The Right to work.' The right to work for £8 a week less than workers earn in Britain! The right to work for British capitalism, the source of the problems in the Province!

What about the 'right to work' for the 33,624 unemployed! A figure of about 6% that could double by next July!

The 'back to work' march, although an expression of the determination of the advanced shop stewards' movement to resist intimidation, became in the hands of the capitalist press a dangerous precedent for the future. No independent slogans were advanced.

No appeal to the mass of Protestant workers to turn towards the organised trade union movement for their weapons of struggle. No linking of the issues of sectarianism and Sunningdale to the need for a working class alternative.

Protestant workers have already shown in their vote in the February General election that they disapproved of Sunningdale. It was no good, as the trade union leaders appeared to be doing, counter-posing this to sectarianism.

Len Murray, General Secretary of the TUC, claimed to have been leading the back to work marches because the strike was a 'political strike'. The capitalist press were delighted that he should castigate strikers, not because of the reactionary class basis of their protest, but because as workers on strike they should not be raising political demands.

The spectacle of the army and police guarding a back-to-work march will be repeated. The capitalist state will be glad of this precedent when it wants tot break the resistance of the organisations of Labour.

Intimidation and sectarianism could have been broken in the early stages if the march to work had become a prelude to a series of mass meetings in the factories where decisions whether to support or not to support the strike could have been made.

There seldom has been a clearer demonstration of the immediate need for an armed workers' defence force. On May 21st, the day of the back-to-work marches, barricades were built around the housing estates.

200-300 men manned a barricade at Newtownards Road. It is no good expecting unarmed workers to individually or collectively negotiate their way through obstacles such as these.

The strike really gained momentum after the intervention of Wilson. Without raising any demands which could have shown the mass of Protestant workers a way forward and lain the basis for unity, he used the well-known capitalist slanders for every workers' movement of 'spongers', 'thugs' and bully boys'.

Boasting of his 'bipartisanship' with the Tory Party he tried to show that Northern Ireland's working class was 'un-British'. Even worse, Gerry Fitt, along with others such as Denis Larkin, President of the ICTU, characterised the strike as 'fascist'.

The term 'fascist' has been liberally used to describe the strike. It is important that this facile analysis, which will have the effect of driving Protestant workers further towards people like Craig, is answered.

A movement may have some of the characteristics of fascism, such as uniforms, arms and the sue of thuggery, without itself being fascist. Fascism arises at certain periods to serve the interests of capitalism. Fascism consolidates the rule of big business and brings it the highest profits economically when there is no other way out either through parliamentary democracy or direct military rule.

Fascism atomises the working class and destroys for a whole period its organisations. Through the fascist agency the capitalists set in motion the masses of the crazed middle classes., the declassed layers amongst the chronically unemployed and all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.

That situation has not yet arrived in Northern Ireland. A reactionary strike, hedged about with all the free-lance armies of loyalist reaction is not fascism. Though undoubtedly there are some would-be fascists amongst the leadership. An area with a quarter of a million trade unionists, 54% of the workforce, cannot pass over to fascism as easily as that. But this must not blind us to the danger of fascism in the future.

Particularly with right wing demagogues like Craig, Paisley and Powell seeking a mass base like the working class must take the warning. The fascist National Front, with links amongst the reactionary leaders of Loyalism, also is seeking a base in Northern Ireland.

Wilson and the other Labour leaders justified their own failure to win the support of the mass of Protestant workers by categorising them as 'fascist'.

The most despicable act of Wilson and the one which transformed the protest to one of mass proportions was his total capitulation to the SDLP is his use of the army to break the movement. The Emergency Powers invoked by Orme was used during the General Strike of 1926.

It gives the Minister powers to break strikes. A dangerous omen for the Labour Movement!

It is a commonly held fallacy that Northern Ireland is a liability. Far from it! The money that is so often said to be flowing into the Province is not pouring in half as fast as it is pouring out again! All the major industrial companies operating there are British based.

Since 1963 output in manufacturing industry increased by over 70% compared with 43% in the United Kingdom: productivity also increased faster in Northern Ireland, with 44% compared with 25% in Britain. The average industrial wage is about £8 a week less than in Britain. So the 'sponging' does not operate from this side of the Irish Sea.!

The surplus value, or unpaid labour, extracted from Northern Ireland far exceeds the grants and loans which the British Government gives to the area. What capitalist power ever gave something for nothing?

The Confederation of British Industry were afraid of the strike, as they are afraid of every strike. Up to £100 million damage is estimated to have been done to the economy in the 14 days. The real 'spongers' are the seven businessmen who visited Wilson to discuss the strike.

Wilson's description of the UWC could well be applied to them: 'They have decided, without being elected by a single vote, who shall work in Northern Ireland, and who shall not.'

The situation in Northern Ireland today is crying out for a class lead from the labour and trade union movement. There are a quarter of a million trade unionists in the 6 Counties. About three quarters of these live in Belfast.

The Loyalist leaders are striving to break the unity of the organised working class. Mass attacks on Catholic workers are now a real possibility. The only force that can prevent the slaughter of workers is the united strength of the working class. If the organisations of Labour merely lie in wait then, as surely as night follows day, a sectarian holocaust will result.

Denis Larkin explained at the European trade Union Confederation that the ICTU 'transcended political boundaries', which is another way of saying it refuses to give a lead in this near-desperate situation. The ICTU, he said, 'represented trade unionists from the extreme left to the extreme right' and therefore 'spoke for all trade unionists in Ireland'. Which is quite a feat of verbal gymnastics.

Class Unity

To speak now in terms of socialism is no idle romanticism, It has been demonstrated that it is the working class which has the power to change society. Let it be changed in the interests of the working class! Where production is planned to serve the needs of the people. Where essential services are run by committees, of workers. Where food, clothing, housing and all the material and cultural amenities of modern civilisation are available in plenty for all. Where sectarianism will be destroyed in a society where everybody has enough.

But whether that happens or not will depend on whether a fighting party of the working class emerges in the coming period.

The Provisionals must now recognise that their campaign will not win the support of the Protestant working class. In fact this vicious sectarian backlash would have been impossible without their campaign of bombing and terror. The Provisionals may have brought down the old Stormont, but just as surely the militant Protestant groupings have brought down the new Assembly.

There is no solution except along the road of class unity. The very defence of working class areas, Catholic and Protestant, will be impossible without a united defence force based on the trade union movement.

There must now immediately be called, as an urgent priority, a conference of all workers' organisations, without the intervention of the capitalist parties or organisations, in the Province to hammer out an independent working class programme of action and to lay the basis for a mass party of Labour and a trade union defence force.

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