Chapter 3 of For Workers Unity

An Ulster TUC?

The NILP leadership has done its best to present itself as the totally independent voice of 'Ulster Labour'. What they have done in a political sense the Workers Association now suggest the trade union movement should do in an industrial sense.

'What's wrong with Ulster trade unionism?' suggests an Ulster Trades Union Congress. The pamphlet is divided into six sections. The first five are devoted to 'proofs' of the 'republican' accusation aimed at the Northern Ireland Committee and the Trades Council. Only in the last section do they bother to put forward any reasons, other than that in the political complexion of the ICTU is wrong, for the carving up of the trade unions.

Here their arguments are weak indeed! The only reasons they can find are: that the bulk of trade unionists in the north are in British based unions (84%). The corresponding figure for the south is only 14%. The NIC is ineffective, they say, in dealing with Northern Ireland affairs. Most employers in the north are British so, runs the argument, Northern Irish workers are fighting the same employers as workers across the water. Therefore links with the British TUC are more important than with the ICTU. However they do not suggest that northern trade unionists switch their allegiance to the TUC in Britain, but that they remain separate from both bodies, while maintaining certain, unspecified links though affiliation.

It is true, no trade unionist denies it, that there are certain matters involving the trade union movement in Northern Ireland which are peculiar to that movement and are best handled in a semi-autonomous fashion. The fight against sectarianism is an example. It requires a northern body which can co-ordinate actions and give a lead. On the other hand it is assisted by the links of the northern unions with the power of the organised working class in the south and in Britain. If there were no Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, there would be a strong case for establishing open. But this is not the case. The NIC does exist. The task is to convert it into an effective weapon in the hands of the working class. This will not be done by splitting the ICTU in half - nor does the Workers Association pamphlet give any reason why this should be done.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party for 50 years has been the totally separate voice of Labour in the north. It did not merge itself with the Irish Labour Party. Has its effectiveness been increased by its independence? It has not.

Likewise the fact that the majority of the northern unions are British based has no relevance to the argument. There are other unions whose field of operation is exclusive to the north and others till who only have members in the south. This does not mean that they cannot come together within the ICTU. Nor does the fact that northern unions are part of an Irish Congress in any way restrict them in the struggle to uphold the interest of their member sin the north. All these points as they are raised by the WA are irrelevances because they do note explain one way in which the NIC is prevented from engaging in struggle in the interests of northern workers, by its links with the ICTU. All we are told is that the conference is a small scale affair which fails to permit the participation of the rank and file to any degree, and that in general, activity with the union branches is at a very low level - things which no active trade unionist needs to be told, but problems which, as we shall see later, reflect the lack of a class lead given by the NIC tops, and nothing whatsoever to do with its connections with the ICTU.

What of the argument that employers in the north are mainly British? Employers, north, south and in Britain are more clearly allied now than ever. Capitalism has mad one economic unit of these islands. The 'independent' republic of the 26 counties in economic terms is a fiction. After a period of protectionism in the south under de Valera the lack of growth of the economy underlined the inability of the southern ruling class to build an economy on their own. Protectionism had to be abandoned and the economy opened to British and International capital. In 1964 the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement was signed and the myth of economic independence was buried. As a result the south has increasingly become an economic appendage of the British mainland. That two-thirds of Britain's largest companies have subsidiaries in Southern Ireland is a reflection of this. The Southern bosses are merely a domesticated pet of the British. When the master applied to join the EEC one tug of the leash was enough to bring the 26 county puppy to heal and make it follow suit.

More clearly than ever workers throughout these islands are seen to face one common enemy - British Big Business. Certainly northern workers fight the same class enemy as the worker in London, Liverpool or Tyneside. But so too does the worker in the south. Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Glasgow or London - wage earners in al these centres must be bonded together. The BICO and the WA would have their organisations retreat into separatism.

Trade Unions developed in Ireland on an all Ireland basis. The early struggles of the new industrial unions at the end of the last century interlocked throughout Ireland. They also grew step by step with the developing British labour movement. Industrial struggles in Ireland often paralleled the first industrial awakenings of the British proletariat. It is this close historical bond with the Workers Association wish to sever. Their proposals do not come from the traditions of the labour movement, nor are they raised today by people with a record of activity inside the unions. They are not the ideas of union activists but stem from the traditions of the enemies of the workers movement against who, its activists have always had to struggle.

The WA and the BICO demand the severing of trade union connections north and south. Yet trade unionists to whom they address these ideas have a right to be a little perplexed. Is not the British and Irish Communist Organisation one organisation? Do not both this group and the Workers Association function on an all-Ireland basis? Perhaps we could suggest that if their ideas are really correct they might become more effective of they were to establish a separate 'Ulster' Workers Association!

A sectarian split in the trade unions

It is significant that the Ulster TUC idea has not been fully thought out by the Workers Association. The 'justification' of it appears almost as an afterthought at the end of their pamphlet. Its structure, the precise nature of the links it would have with other trade union bodies why it should have connections firstly with the British TUC and only then with the ICTU and what in concrete terms this amounts to, what it should do in Northern Ireland to make itself more effective - on all these questions we are left in the dark.

The demand for the splitting of the Irish Congress has been voiced by Jim Smith and other leaders of the UWC. The UDA have given it their backing. It is their idea and was before them the idea of their forefathers. There is every excuse for Protestant workers to be confused on this issue I the context of the Northern Ireland. But the BICO are supposed to be Marxists. They are supposed to be capable of guiding the class struggle. This demand is not raised in the manner of Marxism - it is raised with on thought given to its consequences.

The BICO have examined the situation with their intense theoretical glare! They have noted that the labour movement seems to be suffering from an illness and have come up with the only remedy they can think off - POISON!

The creation of an Ulster TUC would pave the way for a sectarian split within the unions in Northern Ireland. For five years shop floor activists have grimly fought to prevent such an occurrence. Now they find that their enemies are being assisted by a group of so-called Marxists.

Boyd Black, spokesman for the WA, in a letter to the Irish Times (17/8/74) denies that his organisations' proposals would lead to sectarian trade unions. He says: "There is no trade union reason why out suggestion would create Protestant and Catholic unions. It would only happen if there was a nationalist boycott of the new structure. But then we are used to that in Northern Ireland."

In this facile manner can Boyd Black play with the prospects of sectarian unions. He can see no 'trade union reason' for a split arising as a result of his proposal. Only a 'nationalist boycott' would bring this about. But then. Boyd Black and his friends are used to nationalist boycotts. In other words he expects that a split will occur, but since he will be able to blame the Catholics for causing it, it merits no more importance in his mind than the casual observation, 'But then we are used to that in Northern Ireland'. Has he perhaps forgotten that he is also proposing a campaign to drive 'nationalists' and 'republicans' out of trade union positions? Has he forgotten that he wants a Unionist controlled labour movement?

A sectarian division within the unions would set the working class movement back for years. It is not a prospect that can be glibly mooted and then dismissed. To self-righteously place the blame on the other side will not be enough in those circumstances. It will not help to heal the split. Certainly there is no abstract 'trade union reason' why a change in the structure of the unions should result in a sectarian division. If the trade unions in Yorkshire decided to disaffiliate from the TUC and set up their own organisation, there would be no automatics 'trade union reason' why the new group would split down the middle.

But we are not concerned with such abstractions. What is at issue is the actual situation in Northern Ireland. Socialists do not raise their programme in some timeless vacuum unaffected by real life situations. If we did we would still be mechanically repeating the demand of the early trade unionists for the eight-hour day. Demands relate to actual circumstances. A programme must be finely tuned to meet the needs of the hour and to point the way forward from there for the working class.

In the middle of the present sectarian conflagration in Northern Ireland the demand for an Ulster TUC is a certain recipe for a sectarian division to open itself up in the trade unions. It is something which would be resisted by the entire leadership of the movement. It could only be achieved through a campaign, such as the Workers Association propose. For loyalists to establish themselves in the leading trade union positions. This would play into the hands of those on both sides who wish to see the working class divided and weakened. On the Catholic side there are those like Phil Curran, who has already mooted the idea, who would like to see a Catholic trade union movement. These have their 'orange' counterparts in many of those involve din the WA campaign who seek protestant domination over all the unions.

The reality of the situation is that if there is a 'protestant' take over of the NIC and the breakaway of this group from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the ICTU unions would still operate in the north. Their support would be mainly Catholic, but would include a whole layer of protestant industrial militants and shop floor activists. The result would be to leave the working class further weakened and divided.

Ammunition for reaction - stripped of all its finery this is what the Workers Association proposal amounts to. It is fuel in the fire of those sectarians who wish to see the working class paralysed by its own divisions, so that they can the more easily stamp out the sparks of class militancy.

A final condemnation of the careless way in which this idea is raised is the statement that the new TUC will be 'affiliated to the British TUC, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and international bodies' (p3). Here is revealed a complete ignorance of the purpose and structure of the organisations of the trade union movement. there exists no possible way in which an 'Ulster' TUC could affiliate to, for example, the British TUC. A Scottish TUC now exists. It does not, nor can it, affiliate to the TUC. On the other hand trade unionists in Scotland, just as those in British based unions in Northern Ireland, are already affiliated to and influence the British TUC in the only way they can - through their individual trade unions.

A Trades Union Congress is a body whose purpose is to co-ordinate the activities of the difference trade unions in a certain area. Its affiliated membership consists of individual unions, not of other TUC's. The WA claim they wish to introduce structural changes into the relationships between union organisations in these Islands in order to improve the workings of the unions. Yet they have not taken the trouble to examine the union structure carefully enough to discover what changes are even possible, let alone necessary.

A Council of Labour

Sunningdale was a reflection of the coming together of the representatives of Capital in Britain and in both parts of Ireland. Its proposal of a Council of Ireland has had to be withdrawn from public view following the UWC strike. But behind the scenes another 'council' has operated and continues to operate. This is a 'Council of Capital'.

Bosses throughout the British Isles work hand in glove to counter the power of the working class. Labour organisations must likewise come together to co-ordinate the struggl es of workers in Britain and Ireland. Such a coming together could be given organisational expression in the creation of a COUNCIL OF LABOUR consisting of representatives of the trade union and Labour organisations of the British Isles. When we talk of a change in the relationship between Labour bodies this is the change which must be discussed.

This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap