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Peter Hadden

Provos out to Provoke Civil War

(November 1981)

From Militant [UK], No. 579, 27 November 1981.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Despite his claims of hundred percent support, Paisley’s call for a day of Loyalist protest in Northern Ireland met with a very patchy response.

Some workers did leave their factories. About 4,000 of the 7,000 shipyard workers came out. But many more, despite intimidation, stayed at work.

Government buildings were virtually unaffected. Busses and trains ran largely as normal. Belfast bus drivers were subjected to threats, but they did not come out.

Instead of “Protestant unity”, the action day demonstrated the divisions. The activity of Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party was separate from the official Unionists.

The UDA and Loyalist para-military groups kept their distance. As one UDA leader put it, they had marched behind Paisley before – and their only reward was “sore feet”.

Even more significant than the patchy response to the strike call was the small attendance at demonstrations and meetings.

Most workers who left work did so in order to protest at the seemingly endless killings, recently reaching one a day. But by and large they refused to associate with Paisley or any of the political para-military groups.

Unions must fight sectarianism

The Official Unionist meetings in Belfast drew a crowd of less than a thousand. Paisley’s meeting attracted only 6,000. A separate UDA protest at the shipyard gates was supported by fewer than a thousand out of the 15,000 workforce.

A march by Paisley to the gates of Stormont attracted only 400. Outside Belfast it was mostly the same. In Paisley’s Ballymena “heartland” there was a rally of only a thousand.

Even the figures given in the staunchly Protestant Newsletter underlined the lack of support – 600 in Derry, 300 cars in a cavalcade in Bangor, 500 people out in Enniskillen.

Significantly, the biggest protests were in the rural areas. In towns like Ballymena the rallies mainly involved people from the rural districts. The blockades mainly involved farmers and tractors. The 5,000 who paraded that night in Newtownards – as a so-called “third force” – were overwhelmingly from the rural districts.

The limited support for a day of protest, however, was not for lack of provocation. Since the ending of the H-block hunger strike, it has been the clear intention of the Provisional IRA to provoke a backlash.

To Protestants the Provos’ campaign against RUC reservists and off-duty and often ex-Ulster Defence Regiment members appears as a form of genocide. Only the anger and frustration at these killings enables the sectarian calls by Paisley and Co to get any echo.

A section at least of the Provos are clearly prepared to push the province to the length of civil war. Out of the ashes of such a confrontation they have the illusion that the country could be re-united.

Commenting on the reactions to the shooting of Robert Bradford, the Official Unionist MP, the Provos’ paper Republican News’, says: “This is civil war – if there’s to be a consequence of the execution of a British MP then it must be the inevitable consequence of any struggle for a united Ireland.”

However, if the Provisionals continue with this campaign against Protestant politicians, UDR men etc., and if they do provoke a backlash, it will be innocent Catholics who will be the victims. Already, since Bradford’s death, two young Catholics have fallen victim to Loyalist assassins.

The idea of a civil war is not to be toyed with. It would lead, not to a united Ireland, but to mass slaughter, to the driving of the Catholics from the North-East of the province, and to the re-partition of the country.

Among Catholics and Protestants there is a mood of opposition to all forms of sectarian violence. Groups like the UDA and UVF are aware that Protestants are not in favour of random revenge killings, which is why there has not been a return to tit-for-tat murders on the scale of the early 1970s.

Among the Catholics, too, there has been opposition to the Provisionals’ campaign. In Strabane, there was an extraordinary spectacle last Sunday; the 1,500-strong congregation gave a standing ovation to a priest who had condemned the Provos and called for stiff measures against them.

Despite the recent attention given to sectarian issues, moreover, united struggles of Catholic and Protestant workers on class issues are still taking place. Last week, two trades councils called local stoppages and protests. In Derry, the trades council organised a protest in support of women occupying a shirt factory threatened with redundancies.

Newry trades council organised a successful protest strike against a local “Grunwick”-style employer who had sacked workers for joining a trade union.

These issues get little or no mention in the press, either in NI or Britain. The media’s coverage has created a distorted and one-sided impression of the situation in NI. The potential of the working class movement is generally ignored.

This week there was a feast of publicity for Paisley. In contrast, there was total media silence on the half-day general strike organised by the trade unions against the Tories on 2 April 1980.

Yet at that time the major industries were shut. Ten thousand Catholic and Protestant workers stood shoulder to shoulder in Belfast. Almost 10,000 – not 600 as on Monday – marched in Derry. All over the North there were similar rallies and demonstrations.

It is the trade union movement which has the power to eliminate sectarianism by drawing together both Catholic and Protestant workers in united action.

Protestants feel that their lives are threatened and that something must be done. Catholic workers fear attack by Loyalist killer gangs. It is only the complete absence of an alternative which forces workers to put up with Paisley’s sectarian demagogy and calls for a “third force”.

But the formation of sectarian counter-armies, far from providing a defence, only leads to increased tension and more killings.

In the past, the trade unions, through mass action, were able to force the killer gangs to retreat, even in the border areas. Such action is again required. A defence force based on the trade unions is the only means by which the lives of workers can be protected.

Sadly, trade union leaders’ response to Paisley’s stoppage was just to issue a plea – jointly with the CBI – for normal working. They passed by the opportunity to conduct an independent campaign against the stoppage through outlining the alternative of united trade union action against sectarianism and poverty.

The demand for such a campaign must now be taken up within the NI trade union movement. Neither Paisley, nor the Provos, will give up. The danger of intensified sectarian conflict demands bold and immediate class action.

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