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Peter Hadden

One answer – workers’ unity

(March 1982)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 100, March 1982.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

A few years ago supporters of the Irish Militant in Belfast produced a pamphlet of reprints from both the Irish and British Militant on Ireland. Articles written during the heat of events such as the August ’69 riots, Internment, Bloody Sunday, the UWC and UUAC stoppages, the Better Life for All Campaign and the H-Block hunger strikes were reproduced.

The September 1969 issue of the British Militant, analysing the August ’69 riots, affirmed the need for class unity. “Only the binding together of the movement of Catholic and Protestant workers can bring about a defeat of Unionism, Fianna Fail in the South and the hold of British Imperialism.” At the beginning of 1972, as sectarianism was gaining momentum in both Catholic and Protestant working class areas, the first issue of the Irish Militant was produced.

This was done in order to demonstrate the consistency of a clear Marxist analysis which this paper has maintained. The ten years of the Irish Militant have been difficult years for socialists in the North. Yet throughout this stormy period Militant has always adopted a class approach; explaining that only the unity of the working class forged around socialist policies.

Almost the entire back page was given over to an article whose head line read: “ONE ANSWER WORKERS UNITY”.

From that time, despite an often very hostile situation, Militant has refused to budge from this position. The development of sectarianism by 1972 had pushed the class issues and class organisation to the back-ground. Tens of thousands of workers and youth turned to the loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations. In Catholic areas the youth in particular looked to the apparently “quick” answers of the Provisional, and at that time, the Official IRA, of the bomb and the bullet.

Above all, it was army repression, as through the introduction of internment or Bloody Sunday, which swelled the ranks of these organisations. A Marxist paper must not be knocked of its feet by the impact of events. Bloody Sunday and internment threw the pseudo Marxist left into a state of total confusion, which finally deposited them in the laps of the Provos. After internment, an article in the British Militant predicted that the reply of “ambushing and sniping” of the Provos “especially the campaign against Protestant property will only make the situation 100 times worse”.

Again after Bloody Sunday Militant explained:

“The rage of the Catholic population is entirely understandable. They feel like striking back, with arms, against those responsible for this massacre. But to propose a new campaign of terror and reprisals is no way to avenge the dead and will reproduce the bloody events in Derry on a larger scale later ... A campaign of individual assassination of British soldiers can only provide an excuse for further repression.”

Individual Terrorism

Marxism opposes individual terrorism, counter-posing mass action by the working class through their organisations. Not years after the event, but at the time when almost a generation of working class youth held illusions in the methods of the Provos and, to an extent, the Officials. Militant warned that such methods would result in. isolation, repression and ultimately in defeat.

Also we warned that, no matter what were the intentions of the Provos, their campaign would inevitably stir a sectarian backlash. In 1972 this backlash emerged in the ugly guise of protestant para-militarism. When Protestant workers turned to groups like the UDA, mistakenly believing that these would defend Protestant areas, Militant warned that these were reactionary organisations which had nothing to offer, except bloodshed and a worsening of sectarianism. The September 1972 issue of the Irish Militantrefuted the claim of the UDA and the LAW (forerunner of the UWC) to speak on behalf of protestant workers: “neither the UDA nor LAW are any more capable of acting in the interests of Protestants than are the Unionist Party or the Vanguard”.

When in 1974 and 1977 the loyalist paramilitaries attempted to organise work stoppages, the supporters of Militant were to the forefront within the trade union movement in attempting to organise resistance to their endeavours.

Only united action by the working class against unemployment and poverty, against sectarianism and sectarian organisations, against repression and for a socialist solution can resolve this conflict. This has been the cornerstone of Militant’s analysis.


The British ruling class created the problems and are incapable of finding an answer. Understanding this, Militant has shown the true nature of the various schemes and initiatives proposed from time to time by British Governments. For example, when at the end of 1973, the new power sharing Assembly was set up, our front page headline predicted: “New Assembly Can’t Solve Problems”. We explained: “Sectarianism, a product of the appalling living standards in the province, can only be eliminated by the socialist transformation of society.”

Because the ruling class have been incapable of providing a political solution, their real answer has been to contain the situation by naked military force. In 1969, the British Army was welcomed into the province by the so-called spokesmen of the catholic community, including those who stood on the left such as Bernadette Devlin. The British Militant, again in September 1969, predicted: “The call made for the entry of the British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders”. The article called for their withdrawal.

Then, and subsequently, we explained that the army would be a force for repression not for defence. The 2,000 deaths since ’69 are the proof of their inability to end the bloodshed. As early as 1969, Militant counterposed action by the trade union movement to defend workers as the only way of ending sectarian violence.

End Sectarianism

In 1975–6 the trade unions, particularly the Trades Councils in Derry, Lurgan and Newry, gave a vivid demonstration of how this could be achieved when they succeeded in mobilising tens of thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers behind a campaign to end sectarianism. This campaign became known as the Better Life for All Campaign.

Recognising the crucial importance of this initiative by the trade unions a special supplement of the Irish Militant was produced. This called for a stepping up of the action and argued the case for a Trade Union Defence force:

“The trade union leaders hope for 500,000 signatures for their Peoples Declaration. Five hundred thousand people represents one third of the entire population of the province. To talk in terms of such numbers is to talk in terms of the trade union movement being capable of taking the question of defence into its own hands. The trade unions have a basis of support in every workplace and every working class estate. Alone they have the capacity to bring working people from all areas together in a force strong enough to stop the killings.”

Not only is it the Labour Movement which can end sectarianism. The Labour Movement is the only force capable of successfully resisting repression, including repression invited upon the heads of the Catholic population by the Provo’s campaign. Further, the Labour organisations have a responsibility to oppose state repression, since measures used against paramilitary groups at one time can be use to thwart the movement of the working class at another.

Class Approach

At the time of internment and Bloody Sunday, Militant argued that only the Labour Movement could revenge these deeds. More recently, during the H-Block hunger strikes, we repeatedly insisted that this question should be taken up by the trade union movement. As early as January 1981 our paper explained: “It is possible for the Trade Unions and Labour organisations to take up the question of the hunger strike and to do so in their own class terms, not in the terms of the Provisionals or the National Smash H-Block Committees.”

Arguing in favour of the immediate introduction of basic prison reforms as well as for the repeal of all repressive legislation, scrapping of non-jury courts etc., we predicted that the divisive tactics of the H-Block Committees, with their sectarian propaganda, would fail.

In April 1981, just as the support for the hunger strike was at its height, we refused to be swayed from this analysis. We then said: “Only the Labour Movement can secure significant and lasting improvements in prison conditions. The sectarian based H-Block Committees only make this vital task more difficult and should not be supported.”

Not only has Militant, during its ten years, explained the events in the North; it has also given coverage, support and direction to strikes and other class movements.

Militant has participated in a living manner in the process of uniting Catholic and Protestant in struggle. In fact, Militant has been the only newspaper to give proper coverage to the working class movement. On April 2nd 1980, history was made in Northern Ireland when the trade union movement organised a virtual half-day strike. The capitalist media either played down or ignored the event. Yet last year when Paisley tried to organise a sectarian stoppage on the issue of the killing of Robert Bradford, and although his call received less support than did the trade unions on 2nd April, 1980, it was the key news item in Britain and throughout Ireland. In May 1980, Militant devoted a full page to the significance of the April 2nd action:

“The power and unity of the working class, Protestant and Catholic, was established on this day as a concrete fact. The solidarity of the working class – common misery providing the basis for common struggle – had not been seen in the North since the massive engineering strike of 1919 and the struggle of the unemployed in 1932.”

Potential power

Throughout our ten years, we pointed to the enormous potential power of the trade union movement. We also consistently explained that this potential power can never be fully realised until the movement builds its own independent political expression. It was Militant, during the early years of the troubles, which fought against the degeneration of the Northern Ireland Labour Party into a sectarian rump. When after 1974 the NILP had virtually disappeared, Militant was the only political newspaper in the North to raise the demand for a conference of Labour to build a fighting socialist party based in the trade union movement. For example, the special issue produced for the Better Life for All Campaign drove home the need to extend that campaign in a political direction: “If thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers can be united industrially they can also be united politically in support of a party which will represent their interests.”

For ten years Marxists in Northern Ireland have been forced to defend their ideas under difficult objective conditions. Militant has performed this task, holding and enriching the basic programme of Marxism. The years which lie ahead can see the benefits of this painstaking work in the form of the development of this newspaper in terms of size, regularity, content and above all influence within the labour and trade union movement and the working class, Catholic and Protestant.

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Last updated: 15 December 2014