Correspondence: Building workers unity
18 July 2008
You can use the correspondence if you wish for you website.
Even though I have a few questions running in my head right now on achieving what has been up till at present unachievable. That is uniting the working class in the north on a long term basis rather the short term that has been experienced in the recent past with the postal worker strike over sectarian killings in the late nineties.
The trade unions in the north have been very weak or unwilling leaders to help sustain such unity. Even though there may be no predefined schema of political structures, there is work to be done convincing the working classes that their future is best served within an Irish socialist democratic republic rather than in protecting the union.
Socialism has become anathema in the past few decades and the assembly represents those of the middle classes who wish to cement neo liberal policies and as such will continue to divide the working class community - as Connolly said.
"Home Rule in all its phases is now but a cloak for the designs of the middle class desirous of making terms with the Imperial Government it pretends to dislike. It is but capitalist liberalism, speaking with an Irish accent. As such it is the enemy of every effort at working-class emancipation.”
You can continue on to part 2
Asking how we unite Catholic and Protestant workers is probably the wrong question. The history of the North is littered with examples of such unity. The economist tradition within the socialist movement points to these examples and looks to repeat the conditions that obtained then in the belief that the next outbreak of unity will successfully overcome the outdated structures of Northern society and clear the way for socialism.
We would argue that the many examples of united action by workers shows that working people, living in the same conditions, facing the same oppression, tend naturally to work together. There is also a generational effect, where the majority of young people naturally assume that sectarianism is an outmoded relic and they will be able to discard it. It is not this that needs to be explained and sought for. Rather, we have to understand the overwhelming success of the sectarian state in crushing and obliterating such unity wherever it occurs.
As one local writer pointed out, being a sectarian consumes ten times more energy than racism. In the case of the sectarian one has to seek out the minute difference in someone who looks exactly like you before you can discriminate against them. Given this energy requirement, sectarianism should gradually decay.
How is it that the Northern state easily survives mass convulsions such as the Outdoor relief uprising of 1932? How is it that major industrial struggles die away and solidarity turns to suspicion and apartheid? How is it that mass unhappiness about water charges makes not the slightest dent in the sectarian voting patterns?
There are a number of elements that sustain sectarianism. The first and most obvious is the marginal privileges this gives to Protestant workers. The current settlement has not resolved this issue – in fact it is designed to maintain sectarian difference. Catholics are still far more likely to be unemployed than Protestants and there is still a strong structural element to employment, with more Catholics in certain sectors and more Protestants employed in others. The issue has been masked by a mini boom in housing and infrastructure, but not resolved.
Next comes the active role of the sectarian organisations themselves, the unionist political parties, the Orange Order and the paramilitary groups below them, all supporting a network of discrimination and intimidation. It’s important to see that these groups oppress both Catholic and Protestant, with the Orange order designed to marshal and regiment Protestant workers, Bosses at the top, a middle rank of foremen and chargehands, with a major aim of sniffing out and isolating the ‘Lundys’ who lack enthusiasm for the sectarian charade or show the slightest sign of class solidarity.
The overwhelming element of sectarianism in the North is of course the sponsorship of British imperialism and behind them imperialism in general. At every stage imperialism intervenes to shore up and support the sectarian division of society. At the political level the Good Friday Agreement guaranteed partition and formalised sectarian division at every point in society. When that was not enough the agreement was re-written as the St. Andrews agreement to meet the needs of the super-sectarians of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The Orange order was to be dealt with by the Parades commission, an assembly of ‘Great White Fathers’ straight from the heyday of colonialism. In practice the role of the commission has been to facilitate Orange marches and re-invent them as expressions of culture, ignoring the open sectarian taunts and intimidation. Sinn Fein are working overtime to smooth out the last remaining difficulties. When they do, we will be back to the good old days before the troubles. Support for Orangeism even extends to thousands of pounds of subsidies for the Orange bonfires, with the vacuous request that the most open sectarian slogans and threats be toned down.
But it is when we come to the death squads that the state is at its most active, openly promoting one warlord after another in an attempt to stabilise and unify a chaotic gangsterism, ‘standing idly by’ as the gangsters openly intimidate in broad daylight. In a number of cases even escorting the death squads as they evict a killer fallen from grace. In the odd occasion where the sectarians find themselves in court the case either falls or leads to a derisory sentence. It is this factor that leaves Protestant workers at their most vulnerable. Catholics in the major ghettoes at least have the strength of numbers. Who in their right mind, living in an area dominated by the killers, would openly defy the thugs when everyone knows that the police will turn a blind eye?
All of the above is a telling picture which explains a great deal, but if we stop here we get only part of the story. What confirms the North as a sectarian society is the capitulation and co-operation of the whole of civic society. Inside the state this is most openly expressed by the catholic business class and the Catholic Church, who have always defended partition, looking only for their own share of sectarian privilege. Church control flourished under the old Stormont. Now, with the return of the Stormont and with patronage and power showering on them, further embedded in the education system, the catholic hierarchy think that every day is Xmas! On the island as a whole the bourgeois Nationalists have balanced United Ireland rhetoric with support for a unionist veto. Now, with the Northern deal, they are freed from that contradiction and are able to dismiss the idea of an Irish democracy and bend all their efforts to support partition and directly conciliate loyalist reaction.
Just behind the Irish bourgeois comes the Irish trade union movement. To see them as letting the workers down is to misrepresent their role. Outright betrayal is a much more accurate description. Under the old Stormont they had a role in living within the system of sectarian division of workplaces, largely without any protest. A 1960’s deal brought them recognition from the unionist government but had as a price their endorsement of partition and the evolution from the Irish congress of trade unions to the present NIC-ICTU. Their political vehicle, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, disintegrated at the first hint of a civil rights challenge. They stood on the sidelines as military repression and internment became the main instruments of government. Their ‘Better life for all’ campaign was designed to avoid all issues of discrimination on the argument that if we got enough inward investment then there would be no need for discrimination! Gradually they became direct agents of the British, flown to the USA to argue against equality issues such as the McBride principles.
No-where was their role as supporters of imperialism more clearly shown than in the various Trade union peace rallies. The rallies always did three things. One was to blame the republican movement for the violence and exonerate the imperialists. The second was to advance the sort of social partnership on which the present settlement was based – the platform was always stacked with sectarian politicians and representatives of the churches and bosses – only rarely was their a representative of the workers, never any programme in the interests of the workers themselves. The third was to demobilise the workers – the rallies always ended with advice for the workers to go home and leave the issue in the hands of the sectarian state.
A particularly striking example of this was the sectarian murder of Catholic postman Danny McColgan, well into the republican ceasefire. This provoked a genuine anger from all sections of the working class. The TU demo denounced ‘tit for tat’ killings and effectively exonerated the Loyalist killers, a number of whom brazenly took part in the demonstration. The workers were told to go home and await further instructions that never came.
Because sectarianism and partition are so effective at dividing the working class, the radical movements in Ireland are tiny in comparison. Sinn Fein, as the voice of revolutionary nationalism, lacking a class analysis, was unable to provide any coherent opposition to the church and the nationalists, eventually collapsing into junior partners of Fianna Fail and a lynchpin in securing the revitalised northern state. The tiny socialist movement, insofar as it has a social base, finds it in the bottom rungs of the trade union bureaucracy and in the layers of community and social workers. Based on the economist, bread and butter politics of these layers, it in practice supported the partitionist settlement, simply adding the thinnest of left glosses.
How the whole stew works in practice was
demonstrated with nightmare clarity in the savage events around Holy Cross
school. Occupying centre stage were the bigots, caricature sectarian
monsters hurling sectarian abuse and bags of urine at primary schoolgirls,
gradually escalating to pipe bombs. In the ranks behind them stood
the police, as the RUC they had simply lined up with the loyalists and
prevented travel to the school. When they mutated into the PSNI they allowed
the children to walk up, while at the same time allowing the loyalists
to protest in their time-honoured way. Behind the police stood the
new policing board, but when the parents challenged their advice in the
courts they ran up against a judicial brick wall. Then came the British
government, willing to facilitate different views and facilitate dialogue,
to offer very substantial bribes, but unable to recognise sectarian intimidation.
This is hardly surprising when we consider that they are the architects
of the peace walls that make North Belfast a sectarian patchwork and squeeze
catholic workers into constricted ghettoes.
After a short period of shock the journalists took on their traditional role of ‘tit for tat’ clash of cultures – ignoring events in front of their very noses. One should not forget the hostility in the Dublin media, who invented a ‘back way’ that uppity Catholics (intransigent parents) were refusing to take.
The knights in shining armour arrived from the unions, not to denounce the bigotry, but to closet themselves with the bigots and to offer their services as facilitators willing to involve themselves in conflict resolution to resolve the cultural divide between sectarian bullies and their victims. Sinn Fein put clear blue water between themselves and the parents, unable to offer anything other than more conflict resolution even though Martin McGuinness was minister of education! The less said about the left the better. They had been touring Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party, voice of the UVF death squads, as the voice of the (socialist) protestant working class. When he was seen in front of the sectarian mob, calling on the RUC to clear the Fenians from the streets, the left quietly dropped him, developed collective amnesia about the whole incident and stuck to the policies that had marginalised them in the first place.
So sectarianism is a powerful force in the North because the Loyalist sectarians are organised in political parties, in the Orange order and in the paramilitary groups. The state supports them so that they act with relative impunity and the socialist, nationalist and trade union groups conciliate and collaborate. Pretty hopeless, eh?
Sorry to end on such a low note, but as I said in part one, the Marxist analysis has been so marginalised that it takes quite a bit of time and space to outline the basic analysis. I have more hopeful things to say in part 3, which will follow shortly.