Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Peter Hadden

Union silence leaves field open to sectarians

(February 1986)

From Militant Irish Monthly , February 1986, Issue 138N.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

When the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed this newspaper warned that its main effect would be to increase sectarianism. This warning has been shown to be correct.

Already this year there have been a number of sectarian incidents, the murder of a Catholic in Ligoniel, the attempt to kill a Sinn Fein member in Dundrum, attacks on buses coming from the Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry, and an increase in the incidents of intimidation.

Loyalist paramilitaries, long in a semi-moribund state, have started to show a higher profile. UVF literature has been openly distributed in a number of Belfast factories. In the estate on Derry’s Waterside a UVF recruitment leaflet was put into every house, the homes of Catholic families carefully excepted. A membership of 10,000 is claimed for the Ulster Clubs, which include the paramilitaries and in which leading DUP members are now also active. Perhaps most ominous of all, and a confirmation that nothing has changed since Hillsborough, have been three separate incidents in January in Tyrone and Fermanagh where the UDR has opened fire on unarmed civilians.

This increased polarisation was shown most clearly in the results of the fifteen bye-elections. Perhaps not since the famous or infamous “chapel gate” election of 1949 called over the declaration of a republic by the South, has an election been reduced so much to a straightforward sectarian headcount.

With the election results declared and the Anglo-Irish Agreement still in place, despite the massive vote by Protestants to reject it, a very dangerous chapter in Northern Ireland’s history has been opened.

Unionist split

As we go to press Unionist MPs are discussing whether to remain at Westminster. One group led by [text missing] argue that they should stay and fight by parliamentary means. They reflect some of the worries of middle-class Protestants as to what forces might be unleashed if they were to withdraw. But Peter Robinson and Harold McCusker have declared that they will withdraw.

They fear that matters will be taken out of their hands by the paramilitaries and others unless they put themselves at the head of the protests in the North. As time goes by and as their parliamentary tactics fail to produce results the pressure will become ever more relentless on Molvneaux and company to pull out also. If this happens, and in an atmosphere of continued protests, including possibly further strikes against the agreement, the temperature in the North could start to rise towards boiling point.

Militant has consistently explained over the years that there can be no possible settlement on a capitalist basis to the conflict in the North. Capitalism means poverty, unemployment. and attacks on social services. In Ireland it means a poverty ridden state in the South unacceptable to the Northern Protestants and a poverty ridden North to which the Northern Catholic minority will not give their allegiance.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement is not a seen towards the over-coming of this basic antagonism. It is a bosses’ accord which was drawn up primarily to throw a lifeline to the SDLP by offering a few cosmetic concessions, while allowing for the co-ordinated stepping up of repression North and South. For workers, Catholic and Protestant, nothing has changed. The real face of Toryism remains as is shown with the drastic cuts announced in housing expenditure (dealt with separately in this issue). and in education, where the budget of the Belfast Education and Library Board is to be slashed by £1.6 million.

Rather than lead to reconciliation and peace the new agreement will more and more bring about polarisation and violence. It simply cannot be made to work. With their new intergovernmental conference and its possible parliamentary tier, the British government find themselves in a cleft stick position. Should these bodies come up with concessions to the Catholics they will further outrage Protestants. On the other hand if the only return felt by Catholics from the agreement is a more bitter sting of repression the present attitude of Catholic workers of lazy day indifference will turn to opposition, while Protestant hostility to this deal will remain.

Tory concessions

No doubt the Thatcher government, who have admitted that they underestimated Protestant opposition, will now attempt to offer some olive branches to the Official Unionists in particular to try to open the way for some form of devolved government with at least an element of power sharing to be set up. However the very existence of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is a barrier to progress by the government on this front.

It is most likely that attempts to reach an accommodation with the Unionists will ultimately fail and that increasing confrontation between the Protestants and the government with a consequential over-spilling of sectarianism will be the result.

Union silence

To date there has not been a single public comment from any trade union leader on this situation. Such silence is an abdication of responsibility which, if sectarianism were to increase and get out of hand, could have disastrous consequences. It is not fully clear what forms a loyalist campaign of non co-operation in the province will take. But were it to include strikes, rent and rate protest for example, there would be a marked increase of polarisation in the workplaces and in the communities. The utterly reactionary idea of a separate Ulster TUC has already been given an airing by some DUP councillors. Continued inaction by official trade union leaders in NIC ICTU can permit this idea to take on flesh.

Tens of thousands of workers in the North can see the logic of the position of the sectarian parties and of all the paramilitaries is for confrontation. Their opposed objectives cannot be reconciled. Workers do not want to enter this blind alley but they do not see any alternative.

It is on the trade union leaders, as representatives of almost a quarter of a million workers, that the responsibility to provide this alternative rests. Instead of silence they should immediately present a socialist alternative to the Anglo-Irish deal. If they were to explain that this is a bosses’ agreement which will not work they would merely be articulating what both Catholic and Protestant workers already feel. If they were then to put forward a socialist alternative to the miseries of capitalism, North, South, and in Britain, so that there could be jobs: decent homes, proper and expanding social services and rising living standards, and began a campaign to achieve this, both sections of the working class would respond. On the basis of a struggle against sectarianism, repression and for socialism, a class solution to the national question could be advocated and accepted. The kernel of such a position is the demand for a socialist united Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

The longer the ICTU leaders stay out of the arena the more difficult will be the situation they face when and if they attempt to intervene. Immediate act ion to cut across the drift to open sectarian conflict is now urgent.

This issue has been opened up for discussion within the unions. In a number of union branches. (ATGWU, GMBATU, USDAW, NIPSA among others) and on some Trades Councils a call for a special rank and file delegate conference of the movement in the North to discuss a socialist alternative to the Anglo-Irish Agreement has been raised. This call should be taken up in every section of the movement immediately. Time on this question is not unlimited.

Class unity

Likewise in the South and in Britain trade union and Labour activists must challenge the position of the tops of the movement who are now playing footsie with the Tories in supporting the deal. Instead a position of independent class opposition must be advocated.

From the entire episode there is one clear lessen. On a capitalist basis the national problem is irresolvable. Capitalism means permanent conflict in Ireland. To the present dangerous situation and to the national question in general, it is only the working class on the basis of socialism who can bring about a solution.

Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 18 May 2020