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Hidden agenda mars Fire Brigade support march
14th December 2002
A march in support of local fire service workers lost much of its force because of its small size. Approximately 130 marchers, of whom about 50 were members of the Fire Brigades Union, marched along Belfast’s Springfield Road.
The small size of the demonstration was linked to the isolated location, on a notorious sectarian interface miles from the city centre. This in turn appeared to be linked to a growing climate of economism on the Belfast left – a belief that the glaring political divisions in the working class would disappear with a few calls for higher wages or better public services and that the task of the left was to avoid politics rather than confront the imperialist hand behind sectarian tensions.
This at least was the report given by Davy Carlin, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, following a secret meeting some weeks ago involving a number of loyalist paramilitaries. A new unity was about to be forged involving both Loyalists and Republicans, both eager to work together on ‘bread and butter issues’. The march, organised behind a largely anonymous community group front, appeared to be one fruit of the meeting.
The assumptions of the SWP and the even more economist Socialist Party are simply twaddle. There is widespread public sympathy for the Fire Brigade workers but this falls far short of political action. At the political level their attempts to draw an equals sign between loyalists and republicans fly in the face of history. The republicans have a history of sympathy with labour which, however, puts the cause of labour firmly in second place behind their own interests. The loyalists are far right organisations dedicated to sectarian killing and the sectarian division of the working class. A few of the more cynical claim to be socialist – but only as long as they get to define what socialist means.
So it proved on the march. The loyalists never appeared, their time absorbed by yet another violent loyalist feud. A small contingent of republican ‘lefts’ turned up, but the bulk of the march, outside of FBU members and a small layer of the trade union bureaucracy, were the economist left themselves.
There is yet another hidden story. The SWP and SP have had a role in the past in providing a critique of the trade union leaderships. That role appears to have evaporated. When Jim Barbour of the FBU declared that the union would win no-one asked why they kept calling off strikes. When Peter Bunting of ICTU spoke no-one asked why, if ICTU supported the demonstration, they had not endorsed it, led it and organised to bring thousands of trade unionists along. Even less was anyone willing to mention his role in delivering Southern workers into the hands of social partnership or fulsome capitulation to loyalism in the Holy Cross dispute.
Clap-happy sentimentality and wishful thinking are no substitute for political analysis. The latter can at least educate a cadre of workers in the hard political fight required against both the government and employers and their own leadership. The other leads political militants into dreamtime, striking poses miles away from the working-class solidarity they want to arouse.