Only Workers' Unity can stop the killings
Militant Irish Monthly - special supplement, Feb. 1976
Against sectarianism and its effects, against unemployment, against lo wages, against poor housing and inadequate social services, the voice of the trade union movement in Northern Ireland is at last being raised.
For years the people of this Province have endured the miseries heaped upon them by the evils of sectarian violence and poverty. 1976 has opened with another bloody chapter in the history of Northern Ireland. January of this year has slunk into the record books as the January with the highest death toll through violence since the outset of the troubles; a grim portent of what lies ahead unless an alternative can be found.
For the last six years of sectarian fighting the trade union movement has stood in the wings. While its rank and file activists have bravely undertaken the Herculean task of preventing the sectarian poison from blighting relationships on the shop floor, its leaders have refrained from intervening in the general situation. Instead it has been left to a few people, the supporters of Militant among them, to continuously raise the need for the Labour Movement to act.
But enough is enough! Workers can endure just so much of the vicious intimidation, just so many callous murders, before they begin to take action themselves. Isolated incidents such as the weeklong strike by the workers of Lagan Meats in protest at the murder of one of their work-mates have long shown the readiness of working people to take a stand. Such actions have culminated recently ion the magnificent demonstrations in Lurgan, Newry and Derry all of which echoed the type of call made by Newry Trades Council to the killers to 'Get Off Our Backs!' Out of this rank and file pressure the 'Better Life for All' Campaign of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU was born.
The campaign is a tremendous step forward. For the first time the people of Northern Ireland are being given the opportunity to demonstrate in their thousands that no longer will the vile deeds of the bigots be tolerated, that never again will working class people be prepared to sit back and allow religious differences to be used to hold them back from the struggle for decent social conditions.
In order that this message may pervade every nook, every corner of our society, it is essential that all the people, factory and office worker, the old, the young and the unemployed, give their full support to the activities which have been organised. Then all will see that this time it is not the pious pleading of the middle classes for 'peace' but the mobilisation of a quarter of a million trade unionists and their supporters to apply the surgical knife of a united working class to the cancer of sectarianism.
From the leadership of this campaign there must be no half measures. The entire Labour Movement must be sprung into action. The 'People's Declaration,' the two minute silences, the conference, etc, have been welcome. But more is required. A one-day general strike would meet the needs of the situation - not a strike simply to give workers an opportunity to lie in bed, but a stoppage which begins during the morning so that discussions on the major issues can be held in all workplaces, convened by local union representatives. An afternoon rally with marches from workplaces, with banners, etc., would be a striking demonstration of the power of the movement.
have been dragged by events on a downhill path for six years. A well-prepared stoppage would give the working class movement the opportunity to push events along a different course. Through such an action the opportunity could be provided for discussions to take place in every factory and office on how the trade union movement can provide the answer to sectarianism and economic misery.
The first issue of the newspaper launched by the campaign council as part of the campaign states that '…as the campaign develops, the trade union movement will propagate policies and proposals for dealing with the social evils threatening our future.' Indeed this must be done! Not done by the campaign leaders sitting behind closed doors but done by the entire movement through reporting back to a delegate conference convened for this purpose.
To date two conferences have been called. Neither has permitted the voice of the rank and file to be adequately heard. Each has lasted only a morning. The basis of representation has not been election from the rank and file organs but appointment by the various trade union head offices. A rank and file delegate conference could thrash out the future activities and policies of the campaign.
Now that the movement has been partially roused to action the mind of every activist will be on the future. What is to be the outcome of this campaign? If it is to be wound up after May Week, as some TU leaders have suggested, what is to happen then? What will have been achieved? Is the movement to cease to struggle against unemployment and the general economic ills inflicted upon the working class by the economic system under which we live? Or are we to believe that all these problems will have disappeared by then?
Only one answer can be given to all these questions - 'In what way is this campaign different from other peace initiatives?' The only way such questions can be answered is by giving the campaign a clear direction, by posing an alternative on the issues of defence against sectarianism and of unemployment, etc.
Who is to defend the lives of working people? This is the central issue which the movement must face. In the past neither the army not the police have been capable of protecting lives. There are 1,500 graves providing proof of this fact. In working class areas the army have been a force of repression, not of defence. The greater the force they have used, the more resentment they have created and, in turn, the more support they have given to the paramilitaries.
As for the paramilitary groups themselves each has adorned itself with the title of 'the defender of its respective area.' Responsible to no one but themselves, elected by a ballot of guns and bullets, they have assumed the right to speak in the name of one section or other of our community. They have no such right. Far from providing a defence it is in their positive interest to keep the situation at boiling point so that a frightened people with no alternative will have to look to them to their 'protection.'
The Trade Union leaders hope for 500,000 signatures for their 'People's Declaration.' 500,000 represents one third of the entire population of the Province. To talk in terms of such numbers is to talk in terms of the trade union movement being capable of taking the question of defence into its own hands. The trade unions have a basis of support in every workplace and in every working class estate. Alone they have the capacity to bring working people from all areas together in a force strong enough to stop the killings. If only one in ten of those expected to sign the peace petition were to join such a force it would be strong enough to stamp out the activities of those bigots on either side who have their sights set on a sectarian civil war.
The mobilisation of this force would have to go hand in hand with the fight against poverty and cuts in living standards. So long as there exists a shortage of the basic essentials of life the roots of sectarianism will remain with us. But the solution to unemployment, poor houses and low wages must be a political solution. It is one thing to campaign against such social evils, it is another thing altogether to provide answers to these problems.
The trade union leaders have now explained how the demands of the People's Declaration are going to be implemented. In their propaganda they have urged the politicians in Northern Ireland to 'sort themselves out' and 'provide positive and constructive policies.' Also they have courted support of Tories and Liberals at Westminster asking them to support policies which would solve the basic problems.
They might as well be asking a hippopotamus to fly! We face high unemployment and attacks on our living standards not because our political leaders in NI are not the best of friends but because capitalism, in order to survive, dictates that profits must be increased at the expense of the living standards of the people.
There is only one answer- to transfer the ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange from the control of the wealthy few into the hands of the working class. Only with a planned nationalised economy can employment be brought to NI, can living standards rise and basic social amenities be provided for all the people.
These policies will not come from any of the variety of Toryism who 'represent' NI in Westminster. It is not sufficient for the Trade Union campaign to put pressure on the political leaders of today. Why should workers always have to struggle against the policies of those in power? If thousands of Catholic and Protestant trade unionists can be bound together industrially they also can be united politically in support of a party which will represent their interests. Already there are many activists in the NI Labour Movement, particularly those involved with the Labour and Trade Union Co-Coordinating Group, who are pressing for the creation of a trade union based party of Labour.
The campaign has got off very well. Already it has brought to life many sections of the Labour Movement, particularly local Trades Council organisations, who have been moribund for years. It has injected the life force of activity and struggle into nearly all the organs of the movement. But if the momentum is to be maintained and if the entire movement is to be successfully mobilised in rallies and in a one-day stoppage, it is essential that a direction is given.
Unless workers are clearly shown that something more than a series of token gestures is going to result, there is a danger that there will not be full support. The direction to be given must be; firstly, the creation of a defence force controlled by the trade union movement to combat the killers and, secondly, the building of a trade union based Labour Party which could provide the socialist answer to the economic problems outlined in the trade union campaign propaganda.
Militant Irish Monthly
(Special Supplement) Feb. 1976
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