Why Labour has failed

Chapter 2 of For Workers Unity

Unionist unions and a Unionist Labour Party - this is what the WA pamphlet is all about. From its pages we learn: "In fact there is no contradiction between Unionism and socialism." (P3) The trade unions and the Labour Party have been enormously setback during the recent troubles. The quack therapists of the BICO and WA have come up with an instant cure all for all ills - become Unionist.

As always these theoreticians form their examination of the facts draw totally false conclusions. Why has Labour and trade unionism failed to prevent the slide to sectarianism? The Workers Association have discovered the formula! "It is because the Northern Ireland Labour Party has so often had an ambiguous position on the constitutional question that it failed to obtain the wholehearted support of the Unionist working class (!) who have preferred to vote for unequivocal Unionists." (p10) Needless to say the question why Labour failed to retain the support of the Catholic working class does to arise in the in the material of these people. Once again we see that such great thinkers could not possibly have time for such trifling matters!

To reinforce their arguments they quote the success of both Labour and the Communist Party in the 1945 election. That support say the WA was because both parties stood on a 'Unionist' platform. In so far as they dropped their 'Unionism' they lost the support of Protestant workers. The significance of such an argument is obvious. It means that the way to workers is not on the basis of socialist ideas but by singing the praises of the border and the constitutional arrangement. It means that the present pro-Loyalist leaders of the NILP are correct.

Page 8 of the pamphlet informs us: "The Protestants have never been nationalists…Rather they preferred to forget about nationalism and get on with the more important issues. Always their only contact with nationalism has been to resist its claim on them," The BICO and the WA are the people who claim that Ireland is not one but two nations. If the north is a separate nation, which it is not (see appendix) then the ideological expression of northern nationalism is unionism. So on the one hand, this pamphlet informs us that Protestant do not concern themselves with nationalism, i.e. unionism, but concentrate on the most important issues - to a socialist these are the economic issues. On the other hand this same pamphlet tells us again and again that only when they are Unionist can the working class organisations make any headway among Protestant workers!

The argument that Labours failing is for the above reasons deserves an answer if only because it is the same argument as is used time after time by the leaders of the NILP and some of the Northern Ireland Committee members. Time after time workers in Northern Ireland have come together in industrial and political struggle. These were the times of upsurge of working class militancy and solidarity - not of nationalism. In 1920 following the titanic industrial struggle of Belfast's engineering workers the previous year, Belfast Labour, together with a small Independent Labour Party, contested the local election and won 13 seats. The Unionists bosses attempted to undercut this growing class movement by every means at their disposal. This was the time when the gentry incited their working class followers to riot firstly against the Catholics but also against the socialists who were also 'disloyal'. Labour meetings in Belfast were broken up. More significantly for our argument was the fact that the heads of the Unionist Party produced their own tame version of Labour - candidates were put up on a 'Unionist Labour' ticket. These should have been unequivocal enough for the BICO and the WA! If we accept their conclusions this bosses Labour Party ticket should have been enough to shatter the young and weak Labour Party. In fact this group managed to return only 6 candidates. Notably among the Labour members returned were several members of the 1919 strike committee.

Again and again a groundswell of class militancy has risen through the division in Northern Ireland. In 1945 it was not Labour's 'unionism' which made it more acceptable. It was the tide of class struggle which swept the country after the war. In the forefront of this new militancy were the soldiers who, returning form years of bloodshed and sacrifice, were determined that they had not fought for nothing, that it would not be a return to the mass unemployment and poverty of the 1930s. The Labour vote in Northern Ireland exactly paralleled the sweeping victory of Labour candidates in Britain, after an election in which the party stood on its most radical programme ever.

In each case, as with many other instances, the class momentum was not maintained. The Labour movement suffered a decline. "Told you so", say the WA, "they weren't unionist enough, therefore they lost support after a time." Precisely the opposite is the case!

The 1939 Conference of the NILP confirmed that Labour believed that Northern Ireland must stay with the British Commonwealth. The elections of the following year brought to the fore the border issue. Labour candidates were clearly pro-border. All were defeated while the real Unionists in the Unionist party swept the boards.

The 1949 Split

In February 1949 the Unionist Government called a Stormont election which they determined to make into a border referendum. Once again the Labour candidates, despite their pro-UK ticket, were decimated, not one managing to hold or win a seat.

The NILP leadership of that day drew precisely the same conclusions form these results as the present leadership and the WA draw from Labour's present sorry position. They decided that they had not been 'equivocal enough' in their praises of the British connection. In February 1949 a Conference of the NILP was called and a resolution passed reaffirming that Labour stood to "maintain unbroken the connection between Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

What was the consequence? IN May 1949 local elections were held. Standing on their new 'unionist' policy Labour candidates were annihilated, their representation o the council shrank overnight from eight seats to one. The attempt to make Labour scream louder in praise of the border had two effects: it reinforced the illusions of Protestant workers in the Unionist Party, whose council representation rose in 1949 at the expense of the NILP. On the other hand it flung a sectarian division into the ranks of the organised labour movement. The NILP split after the 1949 conference. A new group calling itself the Eire Labour Party and attached to the Labour Party in the South was formed and also contested the local elections that May. It returned seven councillors, four for the Falls and three for Smithfield, both Catholic constituencies. The policy proposed today by the Workers Association for both the NILP and the ICTU would have the same effect.

Today the NILP stands weak and isolated. Yet throughout recent years its position has been all out support for the link with Britain. The June 1973 election manifesto, on its first page, under a heading The CONSTITUTION, said: "We support fully on the constitutional link with Britain and we supported the affirmative vote for that link in the recent referendum." At the NILP's last annual conference a resolution stressing the party's independence of Labour groups in other countries and calling for a "socialist Northern Ireland within the UK" was passed supported by the leadership. On this type of position they fought the General Election in February. One of their candidates even changed the party tag on his election posters from Northern Ireland Labour to "Ulster Labour". And for all these cringing efforts to win a Protestant vote they were rewarded with an electoral kick in the teeth. All their candidates, including the above "Ulster Labour" man, most their deposits with only one exception.

One simple lesson, too simple for the minds of the British and Irish Communist Organisation and the Workers Association to grasp, flows from all this. It is not possible to out unionist the unionists. They invented the game and know the rules. If 'more doses of unionism' were the correct remedy fro Labour they could be no explanation for its present weakness.

The Walker Tradition

The 1938 position, the 1949 resolution, and the present cringing 'loyalism' - these are nothing unusual for Northern Ireland Labour. The labour movement developed in the north amid the controversy between the class ideas of James Connolly and the 'socialist' unionism of William Walker. Connolly, to the WA, was 'bitten very badly by the nationalist bug', while 'much more representative of the great mass of trades unionists in Northern Ireland is William Walker.

They do not tell us what became of the 'great pioneer', Walker. In 1912 he deserted the labour movement and accepted a government position under Lloyd George. Much, much more to the fore in NILP history have been the ideas and the traditions of Walker than those of Connolly. A leading figure throughout the early period of the NILP's history was Harry Midgley. He generally represented the party in the Dock constituency and became chairman. He typifies the type of leadership the NILP have been given. Was he a 'republican'? No! During the war Midgley's patriotic feelings overcame him and he left the party to form a Commonwealth Labour Party. Later he entered the Unionist government. In 1958 he gave all pretence of socialism up and became a member of the Unionist Party.

In 1971 this tradition was upheld by the foremost NILP figure of the time - David Bleakley. He accepted a position as a Minister of Brian Faulkner and sat in the cabinet which introduced internment. Walkers ghost still haunts the NILP. Mot as a flimsy spectre - but in the bodily form of the party's present leadership and also in the forms of the British and Irish Communist Organisation and the Workers Association.

Labour's stance on such issues as the border has been a brake on its development. Not for the reasons suggested by the Workers Association. Only because it has always preferred the soft option of a Walker type position to the taking of a class stand on the question. The only way a socialist can raise the question of the border is by asking, what constitutional arrangement most needs the needs of the working class? In this light the alternative of a Socialist Ireland and a Socialist Federation of the British Isles is the answer Labour should give. When Labour bends the knee to the sanctity of the border only the unionists and the nationalists gain. Labour's duty is to raise and fight for the common interests of all workers and undermine both unionism and nationalism by uniting the working class around its socialist banner.

Neither the NILP nor the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU have failed because they have been 'republicans'. Their failure has already been their willingness to accommodate themselves to the Tory Administration. The accusation that the trade union leadership are secretly plotting to force a merger with the south is laughable. Norman Kennedy, Charley Hull and most of the Northern Ireland Committee are not known for their opposition to the Northern Ireland state. In relation to the NILP the notion that it not deeply enough soaked in 'unionism' is absurd. Erskine Holmes, Billy Boyd and their friends on the NILP Executive have very little to learn from the Workers Association about unionism.

In relation to civil rights the memory of the ICO and the WA proved to be defective. So on this question. Their latest material demands that the Labour Party's chorus's in adulation of the border and the British connection. A few years ago they were also critical of the position of the Labour Party and of the Communist Party. The division of the Communist Party of Ireland into two parts they termed: 'A complete capitulation by Sinclair, Nolan and Co., to the bourgeois division within the nation.' (Irish Communist, August 1969.) This from the organisation which today states that the country is not one but two nations! In a similar vein they criticised the NILP because it was 'organised on a 6 county basis and is openly pro-imperialist like the British Labour Party.' (The Situation in the North, BICO leaflet, 1969.) What they now demand the NILP should be they then criticised them for being!

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