Preface: Towards Division Not Peace

This pamphlet examines the current nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Written in October-November 2001 as a document for discussion within the Socialist Party, it describes how the sectarian polarisation has deepened during the peace process and explains how the ‘Troubles’ have increasingly degenerated into a sectarian was over territory. It goes onto analyse the prospects for the emergence of a united movement of the working class capable of cutting across this and opening the way to a real solution.

In the few months since Towards division not peace was written, its basic conclusions have been reinforced, in some cases quite dramatically so. A number of surveys have confirmed the increased sectarian division during the years of the peace process. As the document explains, in the early years of the peace process immediately following the IRA and loyalist ceasefires there was a feeling of greater optimism, people were more open to new ideas, new political forces started to emerge. There was also a tendency towards the breaking down of the sectarian barriers. According to Housing Executive figures, between 1994-1996 3,000 families moved into areas dominated by the opposite religion.

As is also explained, the opposite trend both towards physical segregation and the reinforcement of sectarian attitudes has been in force since 1996 and continues to the present day. The peace process had come to mean little more than a fragile agreement between political enemies at the top while society, especially the working class areas, has become more sharply and bitterly polarised.

Again, the Housing Executive figures bear this out. In the five years following the 1996 Drumcree confrontation, 6,000 families moved out of mixed areas or areas where they were in a minority into areas predominantly made up of people of their own religion. The result is that, whereas before the peace process 635 of famili9es lived in areas that were either 90% catholic or 90% Protestant, the latest surveys show this figure has risen to 66%.

Throughout the troubles the workplaces, by and large, remained areas where Catholic and Protestant could meet and mix. This has always provided a foundation for the development of working class unity in struggle. Most workplaces remain mixed but there are indications that, even here, the growing polarisation has had some impact. A recent and well publicised academic report by Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster, records that only 5% of Catholics and 8% of Protestants work in areas that they would regard as dominated by the other community.

Another recent report comparing attitudes among different age groups found that the least sectarian were the pensioners, those people who had been adults before the start of the troubles and remembered the greater integration that existed during the fifties and the sixties. That views are more polarised among young people is also borne out by facts revealed in Dr. Shirlow’s report. It records that 68% of 18-25 year olds have never had a meaningful conversation with someone of the other religion. 62% say they have been victims of either verbal or physical abuse at some time since the IRA ceasefire.

Dr Shirlow’s report is based on the yet unpublished findings of the 2001 census. Although the full census results have not yet appeared, the facts that have been leaked confirm that a significant demographic change has already taken place. Figures based on the preliminary findings of the census vary but all show an increase in the catholic population. Some put Catholics now at 45% of the total, with Protestants only a few percentage points higher. Others estimate that the Catholic figure may be slightly more than this and that Protestants may already be less than half the overall population.

Whatever the precise figure there is no doubt about the trend. There are currently 173,000 catholic children in schools, significantly more that the 146,000 Protestants. On this basis, the day when the Catholics are in a majority will come sooner rather than later. The trend is reinforced by the geographical compression of the areas of Protestant majority into a small part of the North East, with the territory of the river Bann and along the southern borders becoming increasingly Catholic.

These demographic changes will eat away relentlessly and inexorably at whatever arrangement, agreement or ‘solution’ the British and Irish governments and the sectarian politicians may enter into. They have already contributed to a growing feeling of insecurity among Protestants, matched by a greater confidence among nationalists, who sense that the basis of the Northern Ireland State is being irrevocably eroded.

On the ground the expansion of the Catholic population has been at the heart of the low intensity territorial war that has been raged especially since 1996. These points are dealt with at length in Towards division not peace. The figures that are likely to emerge with the eventual publication of the 2001 census results will reinforce the analysis and add a new urgency to the conclusion that unless a united working class movement can be built to cut across the sectarian divide, the outcome will ultimately be civil war and some form of repartition.

2001 ended with a marked increase in sectarian violence which continued into the start of this year. Nightly rioting along the sectarian interfaces, especially in North Belfast, was accompanied by threats against workers and then by sectarian attacks, culminating in the murder of Catholic postal worker, Daniel McColgan. Towards division not peace argues against the illusion that partial IRA decommissioning, the restoration of the Assembly or the agreement to suspend protests at Holy Cross, would defuse the situation and stabilise the peace process. It warns that issues like decommissioning, parades and disputes over school access might subside for a time but have the capacity to re-ignite. The events leading up to the murder of Daniel McColgan confirm this argument and do so in a particularly brutal and ugly manner.

As well as the intimidation and daily fighting across the interfaces, there was a marked increase in attacks on workers, especially on those delivering services to the communities. Bus drivers, ambulance personnel, fire fighters, postal workers, health workers and school staff were particularly vulnerable. Some attacks were directly sectarian, others took place as fire fighters and ambulance staff were forced to intervene in riot situations, In other cases public and service sector workers were the victims of anti-social behaviour at the hands of an increasingly alienated section of the youth in some of the most impoverished working class areas.

Towards division not peace carefully accesses the prospects for a movement of the working class against sectarian attacks, against the paramilitaries and eventually the sectarian politicians as well. It also deals with the possibility of a new movement of the working class on industrial issues. The question of a shake up of the unions as a new generation of activists emerges and pushes them to the left is also considered.

If its conclusions on the dangers of sectarian polarisation and conflict have been borne out in recent weeks, what is said about the working class once again taking to the road of struggle and being able to cut across the sectarianism had been even more vividly and dramatically confirmed. More than that, while Towards division not peace anticipates that the working class will move into struggle and that workers will battle to reclaim the trade unions from the suffocating grip of the bureaucratic and right wing leadership, the speed at which this has begun could not have been foreseen.

It would not have been possible last November to project that within a few weeks there would be a half-day general strike demanding a halt to the threats and attacks. Yet this is precisely what has happened. Sectarian reaction acted as a spur jolting the working class into action. What emerged was the biggest united movement of the working class since the start of the troubles, and one of the biggest demonstrations of working class power ever seen in Northern Ireland.

There were some early indications of the anger that was welling up among workers at the attacks. Late in 2001, bus drivers refused to continue night services to parts of West Belfast and for a period these were withdrawn. Further attacks on drivers including the hijacking of buses prompted the Citybus drivers in Belfast, angry at management’s inability to come up with any measures of protection, to stage a token strike just after Christmas.

Attacks on ambulances created a mood for similar action from drivers and paramedics. Faced with a growing demand for action from their members, UNISON officials were compelled to call a mass meeting of ambulance personnel. The mood for strike action was narrowly sidestepped by the union leadership and the meeting agreed that a strike would be postponed for a month while further negotiations took place on the security of staff.

Meanwhile, the fighting at the interfaces continued. School students from both Catholic and Protestant schools found themselves under attack, with stones and other missiles hurled at busses in north Belfast. Faced with impossible working conditions, teachers put pressure on their unions to act. It was agreed that a date would be set for a protest strike with schools closed from 2 pm.

Then came the murder of Daniel McColgan and the threat issued by the Red Hand Defenders/UDA against all Catholic postal workers. A massive movement of opposition began to develop from below. Postal workers across Northern Ireland immediately stopped work. A twenty-four hour strike was called to coincide with Daniel McColgan’s funeral. This was then extended by a packed and angry mass meeting which decided unanimously to stay out until the threat was lifted.

Meetings took place with the UDA through intermediaries and the specific threat to postal workers was withdrawn. This was signalled publicly with a farcical declaration from the UDA that the RHD should disband - which they obediently did! Under the pressure of the postal workers’ action and facing demands from school staff - also under threat from the UDA - and from other workers, the union leadership in the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions issued the call for a half-day strike starting at 12 noon on January 18th [2002]. The fact that they made a clear call for a strike as opposed to just a lunchtime protest and also that this time they acted independently of the employers, the politicians and the churches increased the support. The gravity of the situation - with loyalist threats and counter threats from the INLA and others - gave an added impetus. ICTU’s call echoed the mood in the workplaces that decisive action - following the lead of the postal workers- was now needed. Even though the strike call was only half implemented by the union leaderships, who in most cases hesitated from issuing a clear instruction to members to stop work, there was a massive response. Around 80,000 people thronged the streets at the front of Belfast City Hall for a lunchtime rally. Most stayed only a brief time because the PA system was so bad only those at the front of the crowd could hear any of the speeches. It didn’t matter because the size of the crowd made a much more emphatic statement than anything that was said from the platform.

Elsewhere, at rallies in Derry, Newry, Omagh, Cookstown, Enniskillen and Strabane, there were also impressive turnouts, especially in Derry where around 10,000 people filled the Guildhall Square, over spilling into surrounding streets. A strong contingent of postal workers provided an impressive backbone to each of the demonstrations.

The movement did have an impact. Sectarian clashes continued in the weeks that followed. There were ongoing attacks on homes, families still faced intimidation and some workers still faced threats. However, none of this was on the scale of what had been taking place at the end of 2001 and in the weeks leading up to January 18th. The working class gained confidence from the CWU action [postal workers union] and from the half-day strike. People who had felt isolated and impotent in face of the growing polarisation now saw that tens of thousands of others shared their apprehension and revulsion. They also saw that mass action could isolate the bigots and drive them back; at least for a time.

This confidence could now overspill and give an impetus to struggles on other issues. For more than a decade workers have felt hesitant about taking strike action, discouraged by the memory of past defeats and by the role of a union leadership that more often than not was acting cap in hand with management. But the CWU action showed that strikes can be solid and successful. If determined action can have an impact on paramilitary organisations, why not on the employers or on the government?

Strikes over pay and conditions, or struggles against the pro-business policies of the Blair government or the Assembly, can in turn strengthen class unity and weaken the grip of the paramilitaries and the sectarian politicians. They can also throw up a new layer of activists who can challenge the stranglehold of the right wing bureaucracies in the unions and speed the shift to the left. Two conflicting tendencies are clear in the unions. The right wing continue to move in the direction of ‘company unionism’ with cosy ‘partnership’ arrangements with the employers and the government and with the witch-hunting of activists as described in Towards division not peace. The points that are made about the co-operation between unions and management in attacking the more militant MSF shop stewards in Shorts have been taken a step further, Every single shop steward in the key MSF branch, along with those former shop stewards who had been victimised and derecognised by the union, have been put on redundancy lists and are now out of the company. All this with a ‘silence that denotes consent’ from the union officials and the right wing shop stewards in the factory.

But the opposite trend - a shift to the Left and in the direction of struggle - is also underway and is gathering pace. This is in tandem with what is taking place in Britain as disillusionment and anger at the Blair government begins to turn into organised opposition especially form public and service sector workers. The rail strikes and the action by civil servants in benefit offices over the issue of workplace security are indications of what is to come during Blair’s second term.

Elections in a number of unions have seen an important shift to the left. Left candidates - or more accurately candidates who are at this stage just slightly to the left of the old leadership - have won elections for leading positions including general secretary positions in unions like the PCS (Civil Service union) and the RMT. Most significantly, the elections for the General Executive Committee of the T&GWU, held at the beginning of 2002, saw the left make gains, ending just one seat short of a majority. Left candidates from Ireland who made the demand for the reinstatement of Regional Secretary, Mick O’Reilly, and northern regional organiser, Eugene McGlone, the central demand of their campaign did particularly well. These results could be a stepping-stone to a ‘left’ victory in the General Secretary election due to be held in the second half of 2002.

Locally, the election for the NIPSA General Council, held in the immediate aftermath of the January 18th strike, produced an even more clear cut victory for the left. The left ‘Time for Change’ slate won an absolute majority, taking 13 of the 25 General Council places. Within ‘Time for Change’ the six Socialist Party members who ran were all elected, one topping the poll. NIPSA is the biggest union in Northern Ireland. It represents civil and public servants; the people most directly affected by the decisions of the Assembly, especially the moves to privatise services through the Private Finance Initiative. If a fighting leadership can now be consolidated in this key union, this can have important consequences in exposing the four main parties in the Executive and accelerating opposition to their policies.

The conditions that give rise to sectarianism remain. The paramilitary organisations and the sectarian parties have merely ducked, hoping that this wave of workers’ anger will wash over their heads. In the weeks that followed the strike, the attacks and the fighting at the interfaces may have been less intense but, unless the general strike is followed up with an ongoing campaign against the attacks and against the poverty that fuel sectarianism, the situation will inevitably arise back.

January 18th delivered a blow against sectarianism and demonstrated the power that a united movement of the working class can have. But it was a partial blow. The rallies were huge but there were still large parts of the north that were largely unaffected, including some of the areas where there have been systematic threats and attacks, In some workplaces, especially in rural areas, there was a mixed response.

The tens of thousands who turned up at the rallies did so in disgust at the attacks and because they understood that the situation could get out of hand unless action was taken. Beyond this, the consciousness of what needs to be done is still at an elementary level. The ideas of unionism and nationalism still weigh heavily. Most of those who took part would probably put themselves, at least loosely, in one or other of these two camps.

Workers learn form experience and the experience of an ongoing struggle against sectarianism and on other issues can lead to a dramatic development of class-consciousness. An ongoing movement against threats and attacks can draw wider layers of the working class behind it and can eventually penetrate those areas that were untouched by the January 18th strike.

The key now is to maintain the momentum begun by this action and to follow it up with an ongoing campaign. This means preparing for further action if workers are threatened or attacked. It means taking the campaign beyond the ‘neutral’ town and city centres into the working class communities. Strikes alone will not stop the attacks. They need to be combined with initiatives bringing local union representatives of those providing services or working in areas together with genuine community organisations to work out how communities can be mobilised to stop what is happening.

More than this, it means uniting workers, not just in struggle against sectarian attack, but against privatisation or the run down of services and facilities and against the poverty that blights the working class communities. It also means taking political action. Working class unity will not be consolidated so long as the main sectarian parties maintain their undisputed monopoly. The unity demonstrated on the streets on January 18th needs to be extended into a political unity. A new party of the working class, based on the unions, community groups and socialist organisations is now urgently needed. Successfully launching such a party is not a matter just of organisation. To challenge the nationalist and unionist parties and break the hold they have on working class communities it will be necessary to counter their ideas with an alternative analysis and programme. A socialist explanation will be needed. Without an understanding of the character of the conflict, of where it is headed, of the real lessons that are to be drawn from the peace process and of the past mistakes that have allowed sectarian ideas to take hold in working class areas, the movement will be acting blindly and will be liable to repeat these mistakes.

Towards division not peace provides this analysis. After January 18th its conclusions are more relevant, more immediate than ever. Those who agree with this pamphlet should immediately join the Socialist Party and/or Socialist youth and help us build support for these ideas in the working class communities, in the workplaces and among young people.

March 2002

To read the introduction and first pages of the pamphlet, click on here


Part 2: Anglo Irish Agreement

1990-97

Good Friday Agreement

Part 3: A Problem without a solution

Part 4: Can a socialist alternative be built?