The period since the late 1980s has been one of general setback and
retreat for the working class movement on an international scale.
There has been a decline in the levels of struggle and a general
throwback of consciousness.
The fact that in a period of acute social crisis the working class
has not been able stamp its influence on events has allowed other
forces to fill the vacuum. As a result in many countries history has
charted a peculiar course and the anger of the working class and the
oppressed has found a variety of expressions. This has particularly
been the case in areas where the situation is complicated by the
In Northern Ireland the retreat of the workers movement has expressed
itself in the aggravation of the national question and in the
deepening sectarian polarisation. What has happened represents a
defeat for the working class. It is not a crushing defeat on the
scale of that suffered in 1933 in Germany or in 1973 in Chile.
Nonetheless the movement has been thrown back. The working class no
longer has a political party of its own. The trade union tops have
become largely incorporated in the state. The shop stewards movement
has declined and its confidence has been dashed.
Much of the authority that the trade unions once enjoyed in working
class areas has evaporated. It exists to some extent among the older
generation but as far as the youth are concerned it is something that
has to be re-earned. This means for example that the idea that the
unions could intervene on issues like parades or policing to uphold
working class interests is not accepted as it once was.
The unions, and the working class movement generally, are less
equipped to intervene and provide an alternative to sectarianism than
at any time during the Troubles. This situation can be turned round.
Ground that has been lost can be recovered. New struggles can restore
much of the confidence that has gone.
Class struggle can also cast a new light on the sectarian parties and
the paramilitaries, opening rifts within them and loosening their
grip on working class areas. Above all a new wave of struggle can
throw up a fresh layer of shop stewards and other activists who can
carry class ideas into the workplaces and working class estates.
Such a recovery requires two things. Firstly it will take events: big
class battles on jobs, wages, privatisation or other issues will be
needed to forge a new generation of activists and to allow the
working class to think in different terms than nationalism and
If it were likely that there would be a rapid descent to sectarian
civil war the outlook would be difficult given the throwing back of
class-consciousness and the weakening of the shop steward layer that
has taken place. Fortunately this is not the most likely perspective.
It is more probable that the conflict will have a drawn out character
and this will provide the working class movement with the precious
ingredient of time to allow some of the past wounds to heal and to
prepare for a new offensive.
Elements of civil war are already present in the situation, in the
fighting at the "interfaces" and in the nightly sectarian
intimidation and attacks. This is of a low intensity character, a
trickle of sectarian lava that most people can sidestep and not yet a
pyroclastic cloud that engulfs all before it. We are still a long way
from what happened in the Lebanon or Bosnia.
While the unmistakeable direction of events has been towards
deepening sectarian conflict and ultimately civil war this has had
and is likely still to have a drawn out and protracted character. A
common feature to what happened in Bosnia and the Lebanon was that
the central state collapsed. In Bosnia the trigger was the
disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. In the Lebanon the power
sharing arrangements between Christians and Muslims that had existed
for decades, but which no longer reflected the population balance,
Ethnically based armed militias fighting for territory filled the
vacuum of central authority in both cases. In Northern Ireland the
state, especially since 1969, is the British state. The "armed
bodies of men" who defend the interests of the ruling class are
under the direct control of Westminster. Their actions are determined
by the interests of the British ruling class and not directly by the
interests of either unionism or nationalism.
This is a decisive difference. The British ruling class do not want
to see the situation overspill to a sectarian civil war which would
destabilise Ireland and which would have massive repercussions in
Scotland and among the huge Irish communities in every major British
For them the best defence against the sectarian unravelling of the
whole situation is political rather than military. Hence their
efforts to bolster the faltering peace process and to continuously
prop up the sagging political arrangements. But when politics fail,
when negotiations over disputed issues break down into confrontation
- as is more and more the case - they are prepared to commit
considerable resources to ensure that a Drumcree style line of
military containment is held.
Through a policy of containment and with constant efforts to achieve
some political deal the ruling class can play a role in regulating
the sectarian war. The effect is not to resolve anything or even to
diminish the conflict but merely to stretch it out over a prolonged
So long as the violence is relatively sporadic and the issues that
provoke confrontations are relatively isolated the state can position
itself between the two sides and hold a line. There is likely to be a
long drawn out process that will see confrontations, moves to
agreement, even periods where the whole thing seems to have settled
down only to be followed by new upheavals.
Containment, even containment over a protracted period, should not be
mistaken for a solution. Military methods to patch up the gaps in the
political process may keep the violence at a sporadic level but they
can no more eliminate it today than they were able to do over the
thirty years of the Troubles.
Even this is not guaranteed. The army and policy can hold a line of
sorts so long as the conflict is confined to a few areas and has a
low intensity character. Should it become more generalised they would
very quickly be stretched beyond capacity. During the Drumcree crises
in 1996 and 1997 they came within a whisker of this. Again this
summer (2001) they were able to keep only a partial lid on the
fighting in North Belfast and would have been impotent if this had
spread to other areas
In the long run, if the sectarian polarisation increases and the
violence intensifies, the state will be incapable of preventing civil
war. At a certain point they would probably be able to do no more
than ring fence whole areas and act as a buffer along the new lines
of division that civil war would create.
While there is no ground for complacency given the volatile and
uncertain situation it still remains the most likely perspective that
events will take a somewhat protracted course. The working class will
have time to recover from the blows it received in the late 1980s and
especially through the 1990s. In turn a development in
class-consciousness and a recovery in the confidence and combativity
of the working class would create more sluggish terrain for sectarian
ideas and sectarian organisations.
Future events in Northern Ireland will unfold against a very
different world background than that of the 1990s. The ideological
offensive by the apologists for capitalism that was aimed at further
disorientating the working class after the collapse of Stalinism has
run into the sand. The "free" market system that was
declared triumphant is teetering into recession. September 11th has
been a turning point in world relations bringing centre stage the
violent and unstable world that this system has created. The
"new world order" has undisputedly become the "new
And after a prolonged period of relative quiescence the mighty giant
of organised labour is beginning to stir again. It would be an
exaggeration to say that the working class has already moved
decisively into action. The peculiar and distorted course taken by
events in the neo colonial world reflects, on the one side, the anger
of the masses at the effects of more than a decade of neo liberal
"free market" policies and, on the other hand, the fact the
working class still does not appear able to offer an alternative way
But this is now beginning to change. A new period of radicalisation
is opening. In this period the ideas of "struggle" and
"socialism" that the rulers of the world, during the 1990s,
tried to place in the same grave as "history" will come
back onto the agenda, probably with a vengeance. Just as the 1990s
acted as a drag on the working class movement in Northern Ireland -
and boosted sectarian reaction - so a changed world situation will
have the opposite effect.
The revolt of the youth against the institutions and effects of
global capitalism that began in Seattle at the end of the 1990s was
the first sign of a more radical period. While workers have been
involved in the sizeable trade union contingents on some of the anti
capitalist protests in the main this has been a movement of sections
of the middle class youth and intelligentsia who have begun to shake
off the ideological debris left by the collapse of Stalinism and the
During the 1990s opposition to the effects of globalisation
concentrated on single issues. Seeing no alternative to the market
the youth held back from more general conclusions. Now, at the very
least, an anti capitalist, if not yet a socialist, consciousness has
developed. The tens of thousands who have been involved in the mass
demonstrations and the many more who have been affected by these
protests have moved towards the idea that capitalism does not work.
This in and of itself poses the question - what alternative is there
to this failed system.
These events have drawn the attention of an important layer of the
youth in Northern Ireland. Although the attempts to organise similar
protests have been quite small and dominated by the infantile antics
of the SWP and other ultra lefts, the outlook of a much broader
section of the youth has been affected by these international
Whether consciously or unconsciously many of these youth have turned
away from local politics, seeing only what seems to be a never-ending
sectarian conflict. They have focused instead on the radical ideas
that are beginning to surface internationally. The fact that they
completely recoil from what is happening around them means that,
dialectically, they are more prepared to draw far-reaching
conclusions from world events. For the first time in more than a
decade an important section of the youth are wide open to the ideas
This is why the decision, taken just over twelve months ago, to
launch Socialist Youth was such a timely initiative for our party.
Socialist Youth has been able very successfully to tap into the layer
of youth who will come to meetings on topics like
"Globalisation" or "Che Guevara" but who, at this
stage, would not be attracted by subjects like
"sectarianism" or the "peace process"
As is the case internationally this is in the main this is a middle
class layer. Working class youth live closer to the conflict and find
it more difficult to duck either its physical effects or the
prejudices that go with it. Nonetheless this is a very important
The worldwide radicalisation of this layer of youth is the first
indication of the beginnings of a shift to the left within society.
As Trotsky once commented, the wind tends to blow the tops of the
trees first. The stirrings among students and school students are a
portent of the much bigger movements of the working class that lie
Already the outlines of these movements are visible, albeit still
faintly in some countries. In Latin America the last two years have
seen a series of strikes, general strikes and even insurrectionary
movements. Earlier this year the Greek working class gave a vivid
demonstration of their power in what was one of the most solid and
successful general strikes since the movement that followed the fall
of the Junta in 1974.
And while the core of the anti capitalist movement worldwide have
been the youth, the 300,000 strong protest against the G8 summit that
was held in Genoa in July 2001 was overwhelmingly a workers
demonstration. This reflected the more advanced state of the class
movement in Italy and also the existence of the PRC (Communist
Refoundation Party), a party that defied the 1990s by maintaining a
left reformist programme and a significant base of support among the
The opposition to Bush and Blair's war against Afghanistan drew in
many of those who had been involved in the anti capitalist movement
and has consequently begun on a higher level than the campaigns
against the Gulf war and the bombing of Serbia. Again this was mainly
a movement of the youth.
The degree of opposition varied country to country. In the ex
colonial countries there was deep hostility to Imperialism. In the
advanced countries the situation varied but the working class, while
increasingly sceptical, generally held back from the protests. Again
Italy, in part because of the role of the PRC, was somewhat of an
exception. Just weeks after the bombing began a huge demonstration of
500,000 voiced their opposition.
These are all indications of the beginnings of what will be a new
upturn in the class struggle. It is impossible to measure precisely
in advance how this movement will be affected by the recession that
is now beginning. Most likely this will also vary although the
general effect could be to stun the working class for a period,
especially if the downturn is particularly sharp. Even if this
should happen there are certain to be defensive battles - especially
against closures and redundancies - and many of these are likely to
be bitter in character.
Over time a new generation of activists will be tutored in this
harsher school of class struggle. These will come into conflict with
the current leaderships of the trade unions who have accommodated
themselves to the capitalist system. They will also come into
opposition to the current class collaborationist mantra of this
leadership - the idea of "social partnership".
Fundamentally it is events that shape and reshape consciousness. In
particular the working class draws conclusions primarily from
experience. The experience not just of struggle, but of bitter
struggle that openly exposes the true class nature of society and
which takes place against the background of the period of instability
and upheaval signalled by September 11th, will most certainly have a
profound impact on consciousness.
The working class, starting with the more active class conscious
layer, will begin to draw conclusions not just about the need to
struggle but about the need to take political as well as industrial
action. In the class war, as in any war, ground that was previously
conquered sometimes has to be recaptured. Before the setbacks of the
late 1980s and 1990s the idea that the working class needed its own
political parties independent of and in opposition to the parties of
the establishment, was broadly understood, particularly in the
advanced capitalist countries.
The downturn in the class struggle, the falling back of consciousness
and the shift to the right on the part of the leadership of the
industrial and political organisations of the working class, means
that this lesson has largely been erased. A new period of heightened
class conflict, of victories, but also of defeats that seem to bar a
way forward by industrial means, will once again direct workers
towards a political road.
New broad working class parties are likely to emerge in the next
period. The first steps towards their formation may be confused and
tentative. They may not initially have a socialist programme. But the
pressures of the class struggle will tell and the ideas of left
reformism that, with a few notable exceptions have not had any mass
base of support for more than a decade, will emerge within them.
Just as the world movement of youth against globalisation and against
capitalism had an impact among sections of the youth in Northern
Ireland, so the even more striking industrial and political movements
of the working class internationally that lie ahead will have a huge
effect on workers. Events internationally will leave their mark but
the most particular impact will be from a revival of the class
struggle and the re-emergence of the ideas of socialism among the
working class in Britain and the south.
This does not mean that the working class movement in the north will
necessarily trail in the wake of the movement in Britain, the south
or internationally. The same factors that are beginning to
reinvigorate the class struggle across Europe also apply in the
north. Historically the working class movement in Northern Ireland,
precisely because of the sharpness of the political situation, has
had a tendency to move more explosively and to draw conclusions more
quickly than workers in other northern European countries.
The working class in the north, because they have been partially
paralysed by sectarianism, can set out from a starting point behind
the movement elsewhere. Events outside can act as an initial
inspiration and a spur, but then, in part because of the need to
counter the threat posed by sectarianism, the movement in the north
can be thrust into the front line of the class struggle.
Even in the present very difficult situation the outlines of what can
happen in the future are visible, even if not always clearly. While
sectarianism has weighed down the workers movement and while the
shift to the right has deprived it of leadership, the effect has been
to numb the movement rather than atomise it.
Basically the working class movement is anaesthetised but intact.
Inevitably the increased polarisation has penetrated the workplaces
to some extent and recent surveys have shown this to be an increasing
problem. However the underlining unity of the working class at the
place of work has not been broken. And when class issues have come to
the fore this unity has time and again overridden the sectarianism
and isolated those who promote it.
Society in Northern Ireland is covered with a disfiguring sectarian
mask that hides everything that is not directly related to the
conflict. But behind this there is massive discontent and seething
class anger. We have brought this to the surface in the support for
the activities of the End Low Pay Campaign. The response to the
"name and shame" tactic shows a hatred of employers that is
fed, not just on low pay, but on long hours, ill treatment and lack
of conditions, and which runs very deep.
But it has been the issue of Health cuts, especially the threat to
cut acute facilities from local hospitals. that has sparked the
biggest opposition. The explosive movements that have developed in
defence of hospital services have given a glimpse of what can happen
in the future when the working class regains confidence and moves
more decisively into struggle.
Recent years have seen huge demonstrations in Downpatrick and
Dungannon opposing the threat to acute services in the local
hospitals. One immense demonstration of 50,000 in Downpatrick
mobilised virtually the entire active community in the Down area.
In some senses the more recent demonstration, of 20,000 in Omagh in
October 2001, was even more impressive. The Downpatrick
demonstrations were on a Saturday while the huge protest in Dungannon
took place on a weekday but after working hours. But the Omagh
demonstration was on a Monday lunchtime.
Hospital workers marched to the town centre rally. Other workplaces
did the same, some in direct defiance of their employers who tried to
restrict their attendance. The demonstration - the largest in the
history of Omagh - had some of the features of a general strike.
There have not been major movements against sectarianism or for an
end to violence since the big demonstrations against the breaking of
the IRA ceasefire with the bombing of Canary Wharf at the start of
1997. There have however been indications that the potential for such
movements is still there.
To acknowledge this is not to deny the increased polarisation or the
fact that this rise in sectarianism has seeped into the consciousness
of the working class. To understand consciousness we have to deal,
not in fixed categories, but with contradictions and processes. The
same workers who now stand poles apart on issues like policing,
parades, access to schools and the national question can stand
together, not just on social and economic questions, but against
sectarian violence and against a return to the Troubles.
During the summer of 2001 the UDA - under various titles - carried
out two killings* that were brutally reminiscent of the sectarian
assassinations that the vast majority of people, Catholic and
Protestant, hoped had ended with the loyalist cease-fires. In both
cases there was widespread revulsion, which, in the absence of any
call for action by trade union or community leaders, showed itself in
small incidents rather than mass protests.
*The latest indications are that one of these killings - that of
Ciaran Cummings in Antrim may have been carried out by dissident
members of the UVF
When news reached his workmates in the FG Wilson factory that their
teenage workmate, Ciaran Cummings, had been gunned down while
standing at an Antrim roundabout waiting for a lift to work, they
downed tools and went home. People from all parts of Antrim -
Catholic and Protestant - turned up at the spot where he was killed
with flowers and other tributes.
There was a similar mood of disgust when another teenager, Gavin
Brett, a Protestant who was taken for a Catholic, was murdered in
Glengormley, Again there were no organised protests - apart from a
vigil held by members of our party and of Socialist Youth.
Nevertheless workers from the nearby Mallusk Royal Mail sorting
office came out in small groups - an "almost demonstration"
- and walked the few hundred yards to the scene of his murder. The
call raised by us for a day of action to demand a halt to the
killings was taken up by the media and was publicly echoed by one of
On the industrial front the working class has been pushed back but
the capacity for action has not been eliminated. Figures for days
lost due to strikes are at historically low levels. Nevertheless when
there have been disputes there has also been solidarity and
determination just as in earlier periods of greater militancy. The
one-day strikes against British Telecom in 1999 and 2000 were an
example - workers voted almost unanimously for a series of one-day
strikes on issues of conditions and against the use of agency staff.
When the strikes went ahead they were completely solid.
Fire fighters showed similar resolve when they were balloted for
strike action over the threat to withdraw the Northern Ireland
allowance. So overwhelming was the vote to strike that the employers
backed off and the allowance was retained.
The suspension of two Royal Mail workers in Belfast in the run up to
Christmas 2000 provoked a walkout that took both the management and
the union completely by surprise. This was a spontaneous action. It
took place because, with increased workloads and constant management
harassment, one relatively minor incident was enough to ignite the
anger of the workforce. The strike was completely solid and, when it
spread from Belfast to the main sorting office at Mallusk, threatened
to paralyse the Christmas mail.
A senior union official was sent from Scotland with one objective -
to bring about a return to work. The local branch representatives by
and large supported his intervention and argued that the strike
should end. Without any leadership the workers were left angry but
disorientated and, several stormy mass meetings later, agreed to go
back to work.
The Royal Mail workers could have won an important victory but for
the fact that the CWU leadership locally and nationally mounted a
successful rescue operation for a management that was on the ropes.
Instead of an outright victory there was a setback that dampened the
mood for action for a period.
After years of defeats workers have less confidence that strikes can
be won, certainly that they can be won without a massive struggle,
and so the question of leadership has become more decisive than ever.
Workers are generally cautious about taking action and are doubly
cautious if they have no confidence in their union leadership.
This doesn't mean that without leadership there will be no struggles.
There is a limit to how far workers can be pushed before they are
driven to fight, leadership or no leadership, as the action of the
Royal Mail workers, and of the Montupet workforce in 1997, showed.
The working class will be forced by circumstances onto the road of
struggle even against the resistance of right wing or worn out shop
stewards and the union officialdom. But where there are militant and
fighting shop stewards, even in a few workplaces, the process will be
very much easier.
It is no coincidence that, in the majority of cases where disputes
have taken place, and particularly where these have been fought
through to a successful conclusion, there has been a left wing local
leadership. In the case of the fire fighters the fact that the FBU
has both a left regional leadership and strong local organisation was
a key factor in encouraging the membership to vote overwhelmingly for
Neither is it coincidental that a big proportion of the most
determined disputes in the last two or three years have led or
heavily influenced by Socialist Party members. The fact that a small
party should be at the heart of such a high percentage of the
struggles that have taken place indicates the current weakness of the
left and the absence of any significant layer of shop stewards
capable of playing a role independent of the trade union bureaucracy.
On the other hand it illustrates the correctness of our ideas and
methods and the effect that even a few individuals trained in these
methods can have.
CWU members in British Telecom have a strong union branch whose key
organiser is a member of the Socialist Party. As with the fire
fighters the fact of a determined leadership was crucial in
encouraging these workers to vote almost unanimously for strike
action and for the solid turnout that eventually forced BT to back
Socialist Party members also played the key role in organising
disputes by social work staff involved in childcare in North and West
Belfast and in Derry in 2000 over the demand for extra staff. Faced
with impossible workloads these workers were angry but, at the
outset, were also modest in their demands and their expectations.
Once the huge votes for strike came through and once they began to
take action their determination increased and their sights were
raised. What they might have settled for before the action was no
longer enough. Both disputes ended not just in victory but in a
settlement that was more than the original claim; an outcome entirely
untypical of a period still characterised by setback and retreat.
All the main features of industrial struggle in this complex period
were present in a condensed form during the historic term time
workers dispute. What erupted into the biggest industrial relations
headache for the Assembly in its first period, and especially for the
Sinn Fein Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, began on a small
scale when one term time worker brought a complaint about not being
paid for school holiday periods to the branch officers of the South
Eastern Education and Library Board branch of NIPSA.
The officers, who are members of the Socialist Party, took the issue
up. Term time workers were consulted and came up with a claim for the
payment of a retainer fee to cover holiday periods. This led to a
protracted and bitter dispute involving regular protests, lobbies,
pickets and demonstrations all of which attracted considerable press
The dispute spread across the five Education and Library Boards but
the epicentre was the South Eastern Board where the Socialist Party
led NIPSA branch was strongest. In other Boards union organisation
was at a low level in the schools. Some branches had right wing
officers who did all they could to obstruct the moves towards
Term time workers across all the Boards, on the other hand, responded
enthusiastically. Many of them had not even considered joining a
union let alone going on strike, but when they at last saw the union
doing something there was a flood of recruits. This was especially so
in the South Eastern Board where there was the strongest leadership.
By the end of the dispute the South Eastern NIPSA branch had more
term time workers than the other four Boards put together.
In some of the other branches right wing officers who did not want a
flood of militant term time workers challenging them in their own
domains played an obstructive role from the start. They were not
alone. The right wing leadership, including the full time officials
responsible for the dispute, also did all they could to stop the term
time workers taking industrial action.
The NIPSA leadership initially turned down demands for a ballot.
Instead senior NIPSA officials, along with officials from UNISON and
other unions conducted secret negotiations with Martin McGuinness's
Department. Behind the backs of the term time workers and their
representatives they put their names to a shoddy deal - that the
workers should accept their existing salary spread over twelve
months. They assured the Department that all the "trouble"
was the work of a few Socialist Party members who could be isolated
and the deal sold.
Only a massive campaign within the union and among term time workers
in all Boards, spearheaded by Socialist Party members, prevented this
agreement going through and forced the union to ballot term time
members on it. For a "yes" vote was Martin McGuinness and,
in reality, the leadership of all the main unions involved. Against
was the Socialist Party led South Eastern NIPSA branch. The result
was a shattering rejection - across the whole of Northern Ireland
only one person voted to accept the deal!
This was a turning point in the dispute. The term time workers had
become a cause celebre in NIPSA. Other branches rallied behind them
against the union leadership. The June 2000 NIPSA conference was
dominated by the dispute with speaker after speaker lambasting the
platform for the role they had played. The call for a strike ballot
could no longer be resisted.
Faced with the certainty that a ballot would result in a resounding
"yes" for a strike that would close schools and cause a
major crisis for the Assembly the employers capitulated. As with the
disputes in child care the offer that was finally accepted went
further than the original claim. Instead of a retainer fee, which
might only been half pay, it offered staff the right to choose to
switch from term time to full time contracts with full pay.
This was a huge victory achieved by a group of workers with no
history of industrial militancy and scattered across dozens of
workplaces. It was a victory that was only possible because Socialist
Party members at the hub of the dispute in the South Eastern Board
area were able to provide the direction that was needed.
The term time and other recent disputes are still very much the
exception not the norm. They are isolated outposts of solidarity in a
period in which the working class has still not recovered from the
recent legacy of defeats. But all of them, above all the term time
victory, had an impact on other workers, particularly those in the
public sector. Since it ended other groups of public sector workers
have either balloted for action or taken action, having seen that the
way to get results is through struggle. not through the tame methods
of the bureaucracy.
These are just the first signs of a revival of the class struggle.
This process could be complicated by the recession that is now
beginning to develop. As could happen internationally, a severe
downturn could have a stunning effect, especially on workers in the
private sector. But even if an offensive movement is delayed for a
period there is the possibility of defensive battles over
redundancies, closures or over attacks on wages and conditions.
Recession is likely to have less impact on public sector workers.
Because the public sector is a relatively larger part of the economy
and public sector workers are a bigger percentage of the total
workforce, their struggles could play a critical role in helping the
It is not possible to predict over what period or in what manner the
movement will develop. It may be that it will have an abrupt and
explosive character with one or two major battles rearranging the
industrial landscape. Or it could be a much more long drawn out
process with the working class, weighed down by the handicaps of a
reluctant bureaucracy and by the effects of recession, being able
only hesitatingly to regain its feet.
Whatever way it happens the period of relative class peace, of
"partnership", of the unions being largely incorporated in
the capitalist state, will eventually be thrown into reverse. Recent
struggles are the stirrings of the future. Inevitably those have put
themselves to the forefront of these movements and who are an
advanced guard of this future have met with resistance from those who
represent the past; from the bureaucratic crustacean that formed at
national and workplace level during the period of industrial inertia.
The basic instinct of all bureaucracies is self-preservation.
Class-conscious activists with support among the union membership
represent a fundamental threat to the perks and privileges that the
top bureaucrats especially, but also the petty bureaucracies in the
workplaces, have become accustomed to. In many unions and workplaces
"partnership" has taken on a new meaning: not just sell out
deals on wages and conditions but a union/management conspiracy to
get rid of "troublesome" shop stewards and officials who,
in the words of the former managing director of Shorts "don't
understand the modern role that trade unions have to play".
A witch-hunting atmosphere has developed in many workplaces and in a
number of unions. In some cases this has involved disciplinary action
by management - with very often a large degree of union connivance.
In other cases it has been the union bureaucracy who have taken
disciplinary action against their own members - with the hand of
employers and at times of the government visible in the background.
Most of the union officials who have not bowed deeply enough to the
employers or the government have either been pulled into line or
disciplined by the right wing bureaucracies. The two senior officials
of the TGWU, Mick O'Reilly and Eugene McGlone have been suspended on
trumped up and quite ridiculous charges mainly because O'Reilly's
opposition to social partnership in the south upsets the relationship
between the ICTU and the Irish government and also indirectly
challenges the cosy rapport between the TGWU and Tony Blair.
Joe Bowers, a full time officer for the MSF and a leading member of
the Communist Party is facing dismissal by the right wing MSF
leadership. This is part of a witch hunt of left officials that has
been carried out in order to pave the way for a merger with the right
wing led AEEU. Even more ominously there is clear evidence that part
of the pressure to get rid of Bowers came from the management of
Shorts who insisted that he should not be involved in any way in
negotiations with their company.
Pressure also came from right wing shop stewards within the company.
The union convenors in Shorts, some of whom have connections to the
loyalist paramilitaries, now work closely with the management both in
promoting the company and in developing "good" industrial
Attacks on senior officials are very often a prelude to broader
attacks on shop stewards and other activists who resist the trend to
what is in effect company trade unionism. In Shorts the management
and the senior union reps have also cooperated to victimise the
branch officers of the MSF branch, the one union organisation in the
factory to have stood against the attacks on conditions that were
tamely accepted by others on the works committee.
Shorts is not only the largest employer in Northern Ireland, it is a
company with a long history of strong and militant trade union
organisation. It has been somewhat of a standard bearer of trade
unionism in the north and what is happening is therefore a blow to
workers in the rest of the private sector in particular.
The removal of the senior officials of the T&GWU, if this goes ahead,
would also be a blow. Since Mick O'Reilly became its Irish regional
secretary the T&GWU has stood out in the south as the main opponent
of the national "partnership" agreements. In the north it
has meant a certain opening up of the union although, to the bulk of
the members, it has made little difference.
But the suspensions and threat of dismissal are not just an attack on
two individuals. It is an attempt by the right wing leadership in
Britain to clamp down on the left in the union. Already it has been
accompanied by threats to other officials in the Belfast office, by
an attack on the left led Regional Committee, and by attempts to
restrict the rights of some individual activists.
Members in the north may not have noticed much difference when the
O'Reilly/McGlone leadership took over but they would notice a clear
difference if a new right wing leadership is installed. The former
may have done very little to encourage a fight back against the
employers, the latter would do all they can to discourage one.
There is no clearly defined front line to the class struggle
particularly in this complex period. It doesn't only take the form of
a direct assault on the employers but is fought out within the
organisations of the working class as well. In fact one of the
sharpest edges of this struggle is within the trade unions between
those who are trying to represent the interests of the working class
and those who, in effect, act as agents of the employers.
In broader historical terms the witch-hunting actions of the right
wing bureaucracy may be seen as Canute like gestures by those who
represent things as they were in the 1990s and who are trying to
resist events that are no longer flowing in their favour. In more
immediate terms they can cause setbacks, can temporarily reinforce
the dictatorship of Capital in the workplaces and can slow up the
The attacks of the right can be successfully resisted but only by a
counter offensive taking the issues to the membership. Right wing
leaderships locally and nationally have no real basis among the
members. More often than not they are viewed with deserved contempt.
They retain their positions through membership inertia; because
workers, even activists, who see no way of getting rid of them tend
to lapse into activity or in some cases leave the union altogether.
As workers become more involved and more active so the grip of the
right will loosen. Witch-hunting methods, if opposed properly, can
have the opposite than intended effect by turning the membership
against those who implement them - provided, that is, that correct
tactics are used to resist them.
After the term time dispute, Eimear Duffy, a Socialist Party member
now active in the right wing controlled Belfast Education branch, was
sacked by management on a spurious pretext. There is evidence of
collusion between at least one branch officer and management over
this. The right wing branch officers responded to the sacking of a
member of their branch committee by going to ground and were nowhere
to be found for almost a week
It was left to Socialist Party members, along with other activists,
to conduct a fight. They began to take the issue to the branch
membership - and to other sections of NIPSA - calling for protests
and also for a ballot on industrial action. Within days management
had more or less completely backed down. This affair has seriously
weakened the right wing in this important branch, opening the
possibility that one or two individuals, who have become almost
fossilised in their positions, could be unceremoniously thrown out.
This attempted witch-hunt backfired on its authors only because it
was strenuously opposed. But where the left make serious mistakes the
right wing can get away with their attacks and the movement can be
When the MSF branch in Shorts came under attack from the union
bureaucracy and when it was faced with the prospect of merger with
the AEEU, which had a right wing and compliant leadership in the
factory, they took the decision that the best solution was to leave
MSF and join the T&GWU. This was understandable under the
circumstances but looking back it was probably counterproductive.
The MSF leadership accused the branch officers of organising to
undermine the union and were able to use this as evidence. Eventually
the key organisers of the branch were stripped of their union
positions. This was a pincer attack from the union and from
management who followed up by derecognising them and then shifting
some of them to areas of the factory where they would be unable to
act even as unofficial organisers.
The coup de grace as far as the company and the bureaucracy are
concerned may now be to include these key activists in the current
redundancy package so that the rebellious MSF members are left
completely leaderless. In the meantime the T&GWU took no steps to
follow up on whatever steps may have been taken to sign up the MSF
membership in the factory.
There are circumstances in which it is tactically correct to leave
one union and join another. If, for example, all roads to change
within the union are blocked and are likely to remain blocked for
some time, or if there is a danger that the membership is no longer
prepared to put up with the consequences of an undemocratic right
wing regime and might vote with their feet and resign their
membership, a sideways step into another union could possibly free
things up and might be justified.
This is a risky manoeuvre - it could end in splitting the membership.
If the least active and more conservative workers stayed in the old
union it could reduce the influence of the more militant sections on
them and make it more difficult to bring everyone out together in any
It is a manoeuvre that should only be undertaken when all the
potential pitfalls are understood by the membership. They should be
forewarned that joining another union is no panacea to solve their
problems. The difficulties they encountered with the old bureaucracy
they are likely to encounter again, to some extent at least, with the
leadership strata of whatever other union they choose. There is no
substitute for strong shop floor organisation and no alternative to a
campaign to democratise the unions around demands that all officials
not only be elected but that they receive only the pay of the members
There are cases where a move from one union to another is justified.
But in general the easiest and best course is to stay and fight. In
Shorts the proposed merger with the AEEU could have been a
double-edged sword. Yes, it risked becoming submerged in a right wing
union dominated at local level by right wing and sectarian shop
But a problem can be looked at from more than one angle. Viewed from
a different perspective the merger would have allowed the MSF
activists, who had a powerful reputation in the company, access to
the shop floor members of the AEEU. By campaigning systematically
among this membership the basis might have been laid over time for
the ditching of the right wing thus creating a powerful position for
the left in the factory. This more patient strategy might well have
paid much greater dividends in the longer run.
It is important to draw the lessons from such experiences otherwise
mistakes that have been made tend to be repeated. A much riskier
venture, with much greater potential pitfalls, is now being
considered in the form of a proposal to organise a breakaway mainly
from the T&GWU and MSF and form a new union.
A great deal of denial and double speak has surrounded this issue but
it is clear that Mick O'Reilly, Joe Bowers and others in the south
see that one way of responding to their suspensions and sackings
would be by launching their own union. This is mainly an issue for
the south where they hope to link up with the breakaway train drivers
union, the ILDA and to attract disaffected members of SIPTU.
Even if the potential base is mainly in the south there would be
repercussions in the north where some attempt would be made to get
this union off the ground as well. As with the question of moving
from one union to another this is a tactical issue. There are
circumstances where the launching of a new union can give a massive
impetus to the class struggle.
The development of "new unionism" in Ireland only fully
came about after Larkin broke away from the British based National
Union of Dock Labourers to form the Irish Transport and General
Workers Union. Although the split complicated the situation in
Belfast across the rest of the country it paved the way for the union
organisation to spread beyond the skilled and semi skilled.
This only came about through a series of titanic battles. The 1913
Dublin lockout was fought over the issue of recognition and was
really a drawn contest. It took the huge wave of struggles that
followed the Russian Revolution, the most revolutionary period in
Irish history, to firmly establish the ITGWU as the pre-eminent force
among the working class.
In the US there was a similar development during the 1930s with the
split from the conservative and craft based American Federation of
Labour (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO).
This presaged a mighty movement of the US working class with the
violent wave of sit down strikes and occupations that forced the
unionisation of the motor industry and other corporations.
These were situations where a developing mass movement of the working
class could no longer be contained and restrained within the confines
of old organisations. The new unions were thrown up by a wave of
struggle that extended the boundaries of trade union organisation
beyond its original craft base.
Circumstances today are different. The argument put forward to
support the idea of a new union is that the existing unions have
moved so far to the right they no longer fulfil the functions of
unions. A large section of the membership is disillusioned and would
support a new formation. The general bowing to the employers has left
huge areas of the workforce unorganised. All this, it is argued,
provides fertile territory for a new and more radical union to grow.
There is a certain basis to this line of reasoning. However, for a
new union to be successful it would have to develop, not just from
splits at the top, but out of the pressure of sections of the working
class determined to fight to build it, as those who built the ITGWU
fought in 1913 and after.
It would also have to show itself to be qualitatively different from
the existing right wing and bureaucratic unions. Otherwise why should
workers be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to win the
battles that would be needed to bring it into being? Having elected
officials on average wages might not be a precondition of success but
it would certainly help.
Even if all these factors were in place it would still be necessary
to think and think again before taking such a step. Unlike the former
mass workers parties that have become openly capitalist parties and
have severed their direct connection with the working class the
nature of trade unions means that, despite the incorporation of their
tops into the state, this link is retained.
Generally speaking it is easier to transform the existing unions than
it is to create new formations. And generally this is the better road
for the working class to take because it avoids the pitfalls and
risks associated with any attempt to win recognition and recruit
members to a new and untested organisation.
A new radical union would meet fierce resistance from the employers,
the government and from the trade union establishment. To win
recognition it would have to take on all three. This would only be
possible on the basis that it could win a majority of the workers in
a number of key and important workplaces where it could force
recognition. Perhaps this could be done if these workforces were
prepared for what could be a long struggle.
But if this was not possible - or if such a struggle ended in defeat
- there is the danger that the leading activists could be victimised.
Not only would the embryo of the new union be stillborn, what would
be left behind would be a weakened trade union organisation with the
right wing even more entrenched.
There is very little in all this that points to the new union being
considered by Joe Bowers, Mick O'Reilly and others having much chance
of getting off the ground in any serious manner - in the north at
least. Most of the pressure for this initiative is coming from
sections of existing union leaderships. Undoubtedly there is intense
anger among the rank and file of many unions at the rotten role
played by the right wing bureaucracy. What is not so clear is whether
this anger has developed into a positive mood for a breakaway.
It is possible that such a mood could develop. However this is much
less likely in the context of a recession when the mood of the
working class is likely to be defensive. Workers in factories facing
redundancies will be less confident about taking on the employers on
a recognition issue.
In the north the issue is complicated further by the fact that a
split would be a breakaway from British based unions to join a union
based in the south. Right-wingers would use sectarian arguments to
cut across its support. Faced with the prospect that it could
introduce a sectarian division into the workforce even the most
sympathetic activists would hesitate and hesitate again before taking
any steps to set it up.
We can be slightly more open about the prospect for the proposed new
union in the south but in the north it is extremely unlikely to
develop any real support. If it is formed it could end up as more of
propaganda group, a meeting point for activists, rather than a trade
union. Even if this is all it amounts to we should not completely
ignore it. It could possibly play a certain role in the rebuilding of
a political voice for the working class.
Whatever happens it will not divert the main strategic line of
advance of the working class, which will be through the existing
trade union structures. This is the more straightforward road with
the least pitfalls and it is the one that most workers will take.
What happened in NIPSA on the back of the term time dispute shows
what can happen in every union in the future. The right wing has
always controlled the leading bodies of NIPSA and in recent years
this control has been more of a stranglehold. But the term time
dispute electrified the union and exposed the role both of the
bureaucracy and the right dominated General Council in the eyes of a
broad swathe of the activists.
Shortly after this dispute was settled elections were held for the
incoming General Council. Those opposed to the old leadership,
including members of the Socialist Party and those who had led the
term time struggle put a "Time for Change" slate forward.
The elections saw the biggest shift to the left in the union's
history. Of the 16 "Time for Change" candidates11were
elected. For the first time the right failed to gain a majority on
the Council. The highest vote went to a term time worker from the
South Eastern Board who was standing for her first election to any
position outside her own branch. Four members of the Socialist Party
were elected. The left also took two of the three officers positions
including the Presidency.
What has been achieved, as a consequence of the term time and
childcare disputes is a partial transformation of the union. Enough
members were enthused by these victories and enraged by the
obstructive role played by the leadership over term time to bring
about a major upset in the elections. It has vividly demonstrated
that it is through struggle that the stranglehold of the right on the
unions will be broken
Still, a sense of proportion is needed in registering what has
happened. The election victories, while extremely important, do not
mean that NIPSA has been totally transformed or that the right have
been routed. The recent disputes have directly involved only a small
section of the union's membership. Only a few branches, which in most
cases already had a left leadership, were involved.
The change that has taken place has been in a small minority of
branches and at the top of the union. The broad membership may have
followed what was happening but a large majority of them have never
been involved in any serious struggle. Across the union many branches
are defunct, others are controlled by the right wing and have a very
low level of activity.
The real transformation will come when issues arise that involve many
more branches, including civil service branches, in action; and when
a process of displacing the right wing from the positions they hold
in these branches really gets underway. The victory in the 2001
elections establishes a bridgehead for the left at the top of the
union. It is a bridgehead that will only be held if the process of
change is carried down through the branches into the membership.
If the "Time for Change" victory can be repeated in the
next elections - and this is by no means guaranteed - the influence
of the left at the top can accelerate the process of change at the
bottom. Branches that want to take industrial action can be
encouraged and given backing, not made to jump through various shades
of bureaucratic hoops as would have happened before.
Issues like cuts, wages, but especially privatisation or part
privatisation that the previous right wing dominated General Councils
have ducked and avoided are there in abundance. If even one or two of
these are taken up in a campaigning way they can open the door to
struggles that will challenge the role of the right wing at branch
level and help promote a new layer of younger activists.
What has happened in NIPSA can take place in other unions, the MSF
and the T&GWU included. This will require events, struggles that
activate and radicalise the ranks that are now largely dormant. There
is no substitute for events in bringing about change. But if we can
develop a base of even a few key activists in the main unions we can
speed this process, just as the work we have carried out in NIPSA has
quite dramatically accelerated the shift to the left that has taken
place in that union.
It is now most likely that the period we are entering will bring
about a new upturn in the class struggle and the beginnings of a
recovery from the past period of retreat. It is not possible to
predict the timescale or the tempo of this movement. History will
combine objective conditions with the subjective role of individuals
and organisations to determine this. At this stage we can only point
to the main processes and draw general conclusions.
Increased working class struggle - whether through the unions on
industrial matters, or from within the communities on social
questions, or in some other form - will mean a development of class
consciousness that ultimately will challenge the narrow sectarian
outlook that has been vastly reinforced by the downturn of the
A significant and sustained rise in class-consciousness would
necessarily mean a change in political outlook. It would give weight
to the idea that the working class have particular political
interests that cannot be served by sectarian and right wing parties
all of whom, in the last analysis, defend the interests of the ruling
A by-product of the Troubles was the political decapitation of the
working class to the point that sectarian parties, for the first time
in the history of the north, managed to gain a complete monopoly in
working class areas. A new period of intense class struggle would
bring the working class into collision with these parties - and would
pose once again the need for an alternative.
The idea that has been off the agenda for a whole historical period -
that the working class needs its own political party - can resurface
and, provided the movement is not thrown back by sectarian upheaval,
can resurface with some force. This idea can grow from being the
property of a few relatively isolated activists to become part of the
consciousness of a broad layer of the working class.
Whether, at what point, and in what manner this understanding will
move beyond an idea and take a serious organisational form is an open
question. It will depend on how the movement will develop. The first
steps could be taken if campaigners on single issues - the campaign
to save local hospitals is the clearest immediate example - decide to
put up candidates. There was a dry run in the 2001 local elections
with Raymond Blaney's victory in Downpatrick.
Or a union or group of unions shifting significantly to the left
could decide to defend their members' interests; for example on
issues like privatisation by directly fielding candidates or else
endorsing candidates. Or moves to break the sectarian political
monopoly could begin in ways that it is impossible to foresee at this
As with the fight to end the right wing control of the unions the
subjective factor in the form of our party can play an important role
in making sure, as far as our resources allow, that every avenue that
opens towards the building of a political party of the working class
The task of combating and exposing the powerful sectarian vested
political interests will not be easy. Each of the major parties will
use every weapon at their disposal to keep the working class divided
and protect their political terrain. If the Assembly were to stay in
place for a further period it would easier - but still not easy - to
expose the real class nature of these parties and to loosen their
ties of support among the working class.
Since the fall of the old Stormont in 1972 and the imposition of
direct rule - apart from the few moments when new political
institutions were put in place and before their collapse - all the
major parties have had the political luxury of being in permanent
opposition. They were able to concentrate on their own sectarian
agenda while distancing themselves from any unpopular measures
introduced by governments at Westminster.
The Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly changed all that. Sinn
Fein, the SDLP the DUP and UUP shared out responsibility between
themselves for economic development and the administration of public
services like Health, Education, and Transport.
What was notable was the speed with which the euphoria about an
Assembly, in which normally warring adversaries agreed to cooperate,
evaporated and how quickly any illusions about what this body might
deliver began to dispel. It did not go unnoticed that the first act
of the Assembly, agreed in an instant by parties who had spun the
peace negotiations out for years, was to grant themselves a huge pay
rise. Or that the next measures were to sort out their pensions and
then to work out severance payments just in case the whole thing
Once up and running there was the usual discord on whatever sectarian
issues the main parties choose to flag up. But there was complete
harmony on social and economic matters. On one or two issues local
pressure forced them to step back from some of New Labour's most
unpopular measures. The imposition of fees on third level students
was modified, not completely abolished.
There was also some kudos for the review and probably the abolition
of the hated 11 plus examination and the granting of free public
transport to pensioners. But any positive impact of these measures
was more than negated by the crisis in Health care, the closure of
local hospitals, the impotence of the economic development Minister
in face of factory closures, the depression in Agriculture and the
continuation of privatisation under schemes like the Private Finance
From virtually the word go the attitude of workers was one of
mistrust in the Executive. There were very few illusions that left to
themselves the politicians would deliver anything, Rather than sit
back and leave it to these parties the instinct was to lobby, protest
and apply pressure in whatever way possible to force them to deliver.
The fact of the existence of the Executive encouraged a large number
of demonstrations and rallies, most of them on class issues. In a
very short space of time the front steps of Stormont became the stage
for all sorts of protests. The term time workers organised a number
of mass lobbies, as did other groups of workers. Farmers and farm
workers staged what was the biggest demonstration during the
Assembly's first period when thousands turned up to protest against
the virtual collapse of the agriculture industry.
With the Assembly back in place after the IRA's decommissioning move
- at least for a period - the politics that the four Executive
parties will come up with will be more of the same - very public
sectarian brawling but behind it close cooperation on pro business
anti working class measures.
The "Programme for Government" which is to be agreed by the
start of 2002 sets out its stall clearly when it states that the
private sector is the "motor of economic development". The
policy is for increased use of private finance in public services
meaning - unless recession and mass opposition forces them to pull
back - worse conditions for those who work in them and a worse
service for the public.
All the parties are fully behind this. Sinn Fein, despite the radical
image it still likes to project, has joined the chorus of
"pragmatism" when it comes to this and other economic
policies. Writing in their West Belfast newsletter - under the
misleading heading "Developing our public services" - local
Sinn Fein MLA, Alex Maskey accepts that "we will need to fund an
even greater portion of our public sector capital building programme
using PPP (Public Private Partnerships)".
He argues that "Private Sector Finance can help accelerate
building and investment" and concludes that "we will have
to take responsibility for some difficult decisions and rhetoric will
not help when the reality hits us that we need to find billions to
invest in restructuring our hospitals or our railways."
Sinn Fein will have to answer to its working class base for these
policies which will be increasingly unpopular. So will the DUP which
has a stronger base in Protestant working class areas than its UUP
This is especially so since the next period of the Assembly will take
place against the background of recession. Whatever advantage it
gained from the continued growth of the economy when it was first set
up will no longer be there. If the Executive manages to stumble on
for a lengthy period its policies will face opposition from the
working class. It is possible that big movements could develop
What it did in its first period caused problems and divisions in
those parties that rely on working class support, especially Sinn
Fein. These did not go to the point of open cracks or splits because
of the glue of the national question and because the Executive was
not in place long enough.
Nonetheless it was clear that many Sinn Fein representatives on the
ground found some of the decisions being taken by the two Sinn Fein
Ministers impossible to sell. Health Minister Bairbre De Brun has
recommended the Hayes decision that would remove emergency services
Yet the Sinn Fein councillors in Omagh could not do anything else but
support the anti closure campaign and back the mass demonstration
against Hayes - and against De Brun. Newly elected Westminster MP for
the area, Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein, also called for acute services to
stay in Omagh.
The Omagh council campaign has a parochial view - that if there is to
be a new hospital it should be in Omagh and not in Enniskillen. The
Hayes report is recommending instead that Enniskillen should be
upgraded and Omagh run down.
While their party colleagues are taking to the streets in Omagh to
oppose Hayes the no less parochial and blinkered local politicians
from all parties in Fermanagh have welcomed the report. Pat Doherty,
representing West Tyrone, is against Hayes. Across the constituency
boundary in Fermanagh/South Tyrone his newly elected Sinn Fein
colleague, Michelle Gildernew, agrees with the report.
It may be that Bairbre De Brun will be forced to bow to the pressure
and make a concession over Omagh. This would get Sinn Fein off this
particular hook. But what has happened on this happened also over the
term time dispute and will occur again over many other questions -
provided that is that the Assembly stays in place.
All other things being equal this would inevitable lead to an erosion
of support among the working class for the parties in the Executive.
It would also prepare the ground for an alternative to emerge.
However this would not be automatic. The task of reconstructing mass
parties of the working class will be difficult in every country with
many obstacles left behind during the 1990s still there to cross. In
Northern Ireland it will be more difficult again because of the
hugely complicating factor of the national question.
Not all the anger that will develop against the policies of the
Executive will take a class form. Whatever support seeps away from
the main parties will leave a vacuum in the working class areas. This
is a vacuum that a new working class party could fill. But the ground
will not be uncontested.
There are powerful forces on both sides that would do everything
possible to make sure the working class drew sectarian and not class
conclusions. The main parties themselves would throw up a sectarian
dust storm to prevent any class opposition from coalescing. We had a
glimpse of this in the way Sinn Fein used the issue of parades to cut
across class unity on the Ormeau Road in 1992. The unionists of all
shades would do the same but under different colours and on different
Behind these parties are the recalcitrant and reactionary forces that
are active on a day-to-day basis in whipping up sectarianism within
the working class communities. On the Protestant side anti Agreement
unionists and loyalists - the DUP and a section of the UUP included -
would try to channel discontent with the Executive into sectarian
opposition to the Agreement.
On the Catholic side the more strident and more sectarian voices -
within as well as outside Sinn Fein - would also try to dig a
sectarian channel along which to direct the disillusionment of
working class Catholics. They would encourage nationalist conclusions
- that an "internal solution" won't work, that the
Assembly's policies are dictated by Britain, that the lack of money
is the fault of the British Exchequer and that only an all-Ireland
economy could prosper etc - and would step up the efforts to
deconstruct the State from below.
That such voices will be raised doesn't mean they will be successful
in keeping workers divided. Nationalism and sectarianism offer an
irrational outlet for class anger that cannot find any other
expression. They flourish when, as at present, there is no
alternative and will continue to develop unless an alternative is
But the emergence of a movement, even in its early stages, that is
capable of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers and of showing
another way of fighting back means that the discontent of the working
class can be rationally expressed. Under these circumstances, when
the working class have a choice and a better option, the efforts of
sectarian politicians and their foot soldiers to whip up division can
Historically the attempts to divide workers have been successful in
periods of downturn of the class struggle. When workers unite in
action to take a struggle forward the divide and rule tactics of
governments, employers or politicians have, more often than not,
acted to drive the movement forward, to further cement unity and to
isolate the sectarians. They act like the whip of counter-revolution,
which applied at the wrong time, can produce revolution, not
We have often given the example of what happened during the 1974
unofficial strike by workers in the milk industry in Belfast. At one
point a dairy with a mainly Protestant workforce went back to work
while the dairy next door, with its overwhelmingly Catholic
workforce, stayed out. Loyalist paramilitaries saw this as an
opportunity and mounted a gun attack on the mainly Catholic picket
line. Strike leaders responded by calling a meeting of the
neighbouring Protestant workforce who, in their disgust at the
attack, decided to rejoin the strike. Once again it was the whip of
counter-revolution driving the movement forward.
This may be a small-scale example but it illustrates a process that
can be repeated on a much bigger scale. If united workers movements
develop in opposition to the policies of the four party Executive,
attempts by these parties - or by others - to throw sectarian dust in
the face of these movements could have the opposite effect than that
intended. If could expose the sectarians for what they are in the
minds of a broad layer of the working class; it could reduce their
influence and could cement the unity of Catholic and Protestant
workers that had emerged up to that point.
The best scenario from a socialist point of view would be that the
Assembly would survive for an extended period, not because this will
bring any stability but because it will help expose the true nature
of the four main parties. This doesn't mean that if the Assembly
collapses there is no hope of the real class character of these
parties being uncovered.
Unless there is a rapid descent into a sectarian war, which would
represent a crushing defeat for the working class, there will be a
new upturn in the class struggle. This will come about because of
objective factors, not because the Assembly is there. True, the
Assembly does provide a more accessible target and, because of this,
may encourage workers to struggle.
Without it struggles would still take place. Perhaps workers would
hesitate a little more but the strikes and mass movements that have
taken place over the last thirty years of direct rule show the
ultimately irrepressible nature of the class struggle. The only
difference would be that the political sights of these movements
would shift from Stormont towards the Westminster government and its
This does not mean that the local politicians, with their hands clean
of responsibility for unpopular measures, would be let completely off
the hook. Struggles in the workplaces or in the communities would, by
necessity, draw workers together. And these workers would learn vital
lessons from this experience. They would learn that they have common
interests and that the best way to protect those interests is to act
Every sustained struggle that brings Protestant and Catholic workers
together lays down a challenge to the stranglehold that the sectarian
organisations, the main parties included, try to maintain over
"their" communities. Any tendency towards class unity is a
tendency away from sectarianism; away from the narrow outlook
promoted by these organisations. The more developed it becomes the
greater the threat it poses to them.
When confronted with class movements, with strikes and mass protests,
those sectarian politicians who rely on working class support might
be forced to give some verbal support. But they will do nothing to
promote and extend these struggles; rather the main aim of any
intervention they make would be to bring them to an end.
If a prolonged upsurge of class struggle reinforced working class
unity the sectarian parties, orange and green, would try to whip up
sectarianism to divert the attention of the working class and cut
across it. Divide and rule methods used against a developing class
movement could boomerang on their authors, just as they would if the
Assembly was in place. The real class nature of the main parties,
rather than becoming blurred, could be put into sharper focus.
In the immediate period the sectarian conflict is set to continue and
could well intensify. But at the same time there could be a parallel
development of the class struggle. It is possible for contradictory
processes to develop side by side. It would not be the first time
that this has happened in Northern Ireland.
The first years of the 1980s were dominated by the hunger strikes and
the upheaval that they provoked. Bobby Sands' election, his
subsequent death and the deaths of nine others staggered over a
period of months, massively polarised society along sectarian lines.
These events were the real beginnings of the political rise of Sinn
Fein, which polarised things even further.
Yet this was also a period of class militancy. Workers in Northern
Ireland marched in tandem with workers in Britain to resist and
oppose the monetarist policies of the recently elected Thatcher
government. There were strikes in the private and the public sector.
The highpoint of this movement in Northern Ireland were the health
strikes of 1982.
These saw determined picket lines with hundreds of workers at
hospital entrances. Many thousands took part in the colourful and
lively demonstrations and the angry, foot stamping rallies. Other
workers lined up behind the health workers and there was sympathetic
action with solidarity strikes by workers in Shorts, the Shipyard and
But the most significant feature of this struggle was the emergence
of a powerful shop stewards movement. The local union committees in
each hospital set the pace throughout the dispute. When these
committees were linked up they became the real leadership, and, to a
large extent, were able to elbow the much more hesitant union
bureaucracies to the side
In Britain the Labour Party shifted to the left; Tony Benn came
within a whisker of election as Deputy leader. In Northern Ireland
the movement also began to overspill in a political direction. A
number of Trades Councils stood candidates in the 1981 local
government elections. For the first time since the early 1970s there
was a serious discussion about how the working class could build its
own political voice.
This class movement began on a parallel but separate track to the
contradictory events that surrounded the hunger strikes and the rise
of Sinn Fein. But although sectarian and class forces can be
strengthened in tandem for a period at some point they are bound to
collide. Both are competing for the same base of support among the
working class and the reinforcing of one ultimately must mean the
corresponding weakening of the other.
By the mid 1980s, especially after the defeat of the miner's strike
in Britain, the class movement began to fall back. The moves towards
political action came to nothing. With the working class
organisations unable to provide an alternative the various sectarian
forces stepped into the vacuum. In turn the growth of sectarianism
made the prospects for class unity and a socialist solution seem ever
It is possible that the next few years could see a repeat of what
happened in the first years of the 1980s. The sectarian polarisation
will remain and could well increase. The conflict could intensify as
the peace process unravels even further. Yet alongside all this there
could also be a development, perhaps a significant development of the
class struggle driven by international and by local factors.
The Middle East provides a contemporary example of what can happen.
Just over a year ago the outbreak of what has become known as the Al
Asqa intifada signalled a dramatic escalation of that conflict. Since
then the region has teetered perilously close to the edge of all out
Yet, despite a background of bloody military incursions into the West
Bank and Gaza, of systematic assassinations of Palestinian activists
and of suicide bomb and gun attacks inside, there has been a very
significant industrial movement of the Israeli working class. In
recent months there have been strikes by Dockers, Fire-fighters, Land
Registry workers, University lecturers, Ministry of Labour workers
and other public servants to name but some.
There is no exact parallel between Northern Ireland and the situation
in the Middle East. Nonetheless the growth of class anger at cut
backs and the first effects of recession in Israel is an indication
that, even a quite dramatic worsening of the sectarian conflict here
need not necessarily dampen the determination of the working class to
Most likely a new upsurge in class struggle will begin on industrial
or social issues: wages, job losses, privatisation, cuts in services
etc. The first instinct even of some of the best workers involved is
likely to be to stick to these issues and avoid the more
"divisive" and "difficult" questions like
parades, policing and above all the constitutional question.
However these issues cannot be ducked or avoided. They will not
simply go away and if the working class movement does not take them
up in a way that will unite workers the sectarians will continue to
do so in a way that will keep people divided.
It is possible to unite workers even on questions like parades and on
the national question. We are unique in having developed a programme
that is capable of doing this. Our ideas on parades are now accepted
by a wide layer of workers, Catholic and Protestant. On the question
of the border and partition we are alone in having a position that
does not bend into either sectarian camp, but upholds the rights of
both sections of the working class and puts class rather than
sectional interests first.
We are opposed to all capitalist "solutions" as completely
unworkable. This means we are against any attempt to force
Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland, just as we are against
attempts to coerce Catholics to accept the status quo. We advocate a
socialist Ireland as an equal and voluntary part of a socialist
federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland which in turn
would be part of a wider European socialist federation or
A socialist Ireland means a single socialist state, not a
continuation of partition. But in putting this forward we have to
take account of the doubts and reservations that are very deeply felt
in the Protestant community. It can only be advanced if, alongside
it, there is an assurance that Protestants would not be coerced into
a single socialist state against their will. Should they remain
opposed even to a socialist united Ireland they would be given the
right to opt out and some other political arrangement could be put in
place; at least until the doubts of the Protestant working class were
Any class unity that starts out on social and economic questions will
only be cemented if it is extended to the so-called
"sectarian" issues. A sustained class movement would
inevitably be driven in a political direction as workers draw
political conclusions from their experience and as it starts to come
into direct collision with those who have a vested interest in
maintaining the sectarian divide.
To ultimately succeed in eroding the working class support for
sectarian ideas and organisations it would have to offer a socialist
alternative. Events will push the movement in this direction,
especially as socialist ideas begin to resurface internationally.
However when a new mass workers movement develops the long historical
gap separating it from previous movements means that it will start
out on a low level of consciousness. Lessons that were learned or
part learned in the past about how to tackle sectarianism, about the
need to go beyond economic issues, about the need for political as
well as industrial action will have to be relearned.
Those who retain the traditions of the past can shorten the path to
the future. It is the advanced layer of the working class, the shop
stewards and class-conscious activists, those who remain active when
mass struggles subside, who carry the best traditions and whatever
lessons they have absorbed from those struggles into future
Above all it is the role of Marxists to consciously assimilate the
lessons of past movements, of defeats as well and as much as, of
victories. The revolutionary party acts as a memory for the working
class using its history to help work out a strategy,
The last decade and a half of general retreat has meant that the
activist class-conscious layer of the working class has been thinned
dramatically. It is now more the case that there are pockets of
activists, maintaining class ideas in some workplaces and some
communities, but there is no longer a strata capable of directing and
drawing the working class behind it.
This places a double weight of responsibility on Marxists. The
Socialist Party has a dual task in this period. On the one hand we
have to defend the far-reaching conclusions that flow from the
history of the workers movement: the inability of reformist ideas and
methods to resolve the national problem and overthrow capitalism. On
the other hand we face the more elementary task of defending the idea
of struggle, of rebuilding combative trade union organisations in the
workplaces and of helping the movement take the first steps towards
independent political action.
These tasks are complementary - we do not first work with others to
rebuild independent class organisations and then, only when this
done, build our own party. The revolutionary conclusions we have
drawn flow from history and experience. They represent, in the last
analysis, the only way forward for the working class. Our ideas are
the only ideas that offer a way of solving the national problem and
of uniting workers on all of the complex and potentially divisive
issues that area associated with it.
The mass of the working class will come to these conclusions through
experience. But our intervention can speed this process. This means
standing alongside the working class in every struggle, advancing
step by step with the workers movement, attempting to consolidate
every gain but, at the same time, always pointing to the need to
overthrown capitalism and to build a party that is committed to this
The emergence of a new generation of class activists, above all the
growth in support and influence of our party, will accelerate the
class struggle. Even now workers are much more likely to take action
where they have confidence in their local leadership. And important
strikes or other struggles taking place even in one or two workplaces
or affecting one or two groups of workers can have far reaching
effects in encouraging other workers to take action.
A leadership with roots in a few key areas can have an influence and
effect far beyond its numbers and, in Northern Ireland, can even have
a decisive impact on the overall political situation. Initiatives
taken by members of our party have in the past led to massive united
movements of Catholic and Protestant workers against sectarianism.
By contrast there was an opportunity in the summer of 2001 for
similar action against the assassinations carried out by the UDA. The
killing of Ciaran Cummings in Antrim did provoke a walk out of sorts
by his FG Wilson workmates. But it was unorganised and barely noticed
by the mass of the working class.
Had there been a active and confident union organisation in the
factory, above all if the Socialist Party had had a presence, we
could have responded to the news of his death with a mass meeting of
the workforce and a decision to walk out. This, if it was coupled
with an appeal to workers elsewhere to take protest action, could
have triggered a movement that would have forced even the UDA to hold
its hand for a period.
The subjective factor of leadership will be build from the movements
of the working class and in turn, as it develops, will have an effect
in shaping and strengthening those movements. Thus the development of
our party is not something for the future, for "better
times" when there is a more smoothly contoured objective
landscape. It is an urgent immediate task both because of the impact
even a small organisation that has real roots in the working class
can have in helping push the working class into action and also to
ensure that we have the forces to be able to intervene in those
movements when they take place.
Just as the tempo of class struggle can rise even in a period of
rising sectarianism so the forces of Marxism can grow significantly
even when the mass of the working class are not looking in a
socialist direction. There are those who can see the dangers of the
current sectarian drift of events and who are increasingly aware that
an alternative is needed.
This may be a small layer at this stage but it can still provide the
forces to allow our party to develop our base among the working class
and especially among the youth. Within the workplaces and the
communities there are a small - very small at this point it is true -
number of activists who are repelled by sectarianism and who want to
put the class issues to the fore. As struggles develop this layer
For now it is a matter of developing points of support, of
consolidating and building around whatever bridgeheads we can
establish. Key positions that are won today even in a few areas can,
when struggles take place in these areas, become a focus of attention
for much wider layers of activists.
The base that we have already carved out in the public sector,
especially in NIPSA, can be a vital stepping-stone to building our
influence in the trade union movement generally. We need to
concentrate on developing this work. This is not to ignore the
industrial working class, the powerful "big battalions" who
are key in the long run.
However the public sector can be the more immediate key. Public
sector workplaces are generally more mixed. Many have played a key
role in the movements against sectarianism in the past and the
residue of these movements remains. Issues like privatisation, as
well as the chronically low wages and erosion of conditions, means
that they can be a battleground. Also the fact that the local
politicians are now the "employer" means that political
conclusions can more easily be drawn from struggles.
We need to pay particular attention to the recruitment of women
workers. Women are an increasingly important part of the workforce.
At the start of the Troubles the female participation rate was 33.5%.
By 1989 this had risen to 46.3%. During the 1990s female employment
rose by 19.7%. By 1999 the economic activity rate of women had risen
This dramatic rise means that women provide a relatively fresh layer
of the workforce. Many are in low paid part time jobs especially
those in the service sector. The simmering anger that exists among
this section of the workforce is shown every week at the End Low Pay
stalls. The majority of those who sign are women. as are most of
those who report the worst conditions and lowest pay. The important
role that women will play in future struggles was also shown in the
term time dispute which was overwhelmingly a struggle of women
Women will play a vital role in the rebirth of the working class
movement. As well paying attention to the recruitment of women,
especially working class women, in all areas of our work we need to
take up issues that are more specific to women. We need to increase
the participation of women at all levels within the party.
But overall the most important area of work for us is our youth work.
Youth are the most dynamic section of society, those that will most
readily draw revolutionary conclusions. The point made earlier that a
section of the youth are now open to socialist and Marxist ideas
cannot be overstressed.
We need to intervene energetically to win these youth to our ideas.
It may be middle class youth that are more open to radical ideas at
the moment but, if we recruit and educate from this stratum and then
orientate them to the working class, they can play an indispensable
role in the building of our party.
We have competition in this area. Sectarian organisations of both
sides are also paying attention to youth. Sinn Fein does not have a
large active youth membership and they are trying to redress this by
promoting their youth wing, Ogra Sinn Fein. On the Protestant side,
the UDA are active in the schools trying to build the Ulster Young
It is only the ideas of the Socialist Party and of Socialist Youth
that can provide an alternative to the sectarians and can win the
best of the youth, Catholic and Protestant. In 1968-9 a mass movement
of the youth stood society on its head. The old political structures
crumbled before it.
The potential existed to build a socialist movement that could have
changed society. That potential was lost and the youth who had
scratched a deep notch in history either dropped away or ended up
joining the paramilitaries. A bitter price has been paid for this.
If this generation of youth is also lost to sectarian ideas and
organisations the working class will pay an even more terrible price.
It would be a long way back from a defeat of this character. But if
the new generation can be won to socialist ideas and to the struggle
to bring these ideas about, it can stand on the shoulders of the best
of what happened in 1968 and will be able to deal a decisive blow at
sectarianism and at capitalism.
A difficult and dangerous situation has opened in the north. Unless
the working class intervenes there will be a slide towards civil war.
But there is also an opportunity for to build the Socialist Party,
developing important points of support among the working class and
the youth. To do this we need to concentrate our forces, to orientate
to the areas where we can make gains. If we are successful we can
have an impact on events, even in the short term. But every task must
be imbued with urgency. We are in a race against time to build our
forces so that we can prevent our sectarian enemies dragging us into
a Bosnian quagmire.