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May Day in Belfast: What did it tell us?

Joe Craig

10 May 2008

The annual trade union May Day march in Belfast was disappointingly small with the turnout markedly down on previous years.  Past attendances had been increased by concern over the imposition of water charges and hopes that the trade union movement would lead opposition to them.  Many people now believe that this issue has been solved, at the very least postponed, or that there is not going to be significant resistance.

The march was therefore composed of a collection of very small contingents from a variety of unions, political groups and campaigns with none able to mobilise significant numbers.  On the face of it we witnessed a small and divided movement with no apparent agreement, who had all seen each others familiar faces many, many times before.  Groups handed out leaflets to each other with no independent audience to address and a minority of participants listened to the speeches which failed to inspire.  This at least is how it appeared on the surface

In fact despite division into a range of different political groups and unions the vast majority of those present shared a fundamental unity.  Not only that, they share an objective which they have sought for many years, and have just witnessed the achievement of this objective.  Far from the relatively small and muted turnout, we should, on this basis, have witnessed a much larger and celebratory attendance.


In their own ways and for their own reasons the political objective of the majority of those present has been to see the ‘return’ of ‘normal’ politics and the restoration of a local assembly composed of locally elected politicians. As Peter Bunting, ICTU Assistant General Secretary, put it last year: ‘after years of direct rule and the faltering attempts at devolution after the 1998 Agreement, Stormont is back at work.  We called for it for years. We lobbied, marched, cajoled, complained, urged, encouraged and appealed to our locally elected politicians to ‘Get On With It’ and return Stormont to the people.  Well, last March it happened. The Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley shared a table with Gerry Adams and said those four little words that we often thought were unsayable: “Today, we have agreed.”  Those four words have added to our workload as well as our political class.  For the first time in three generations we now have the motives, the means and the opportunities to shape a better life for everyone in Northern Ireland, with no child or adult left behind.’

Almost all the different political groups and unions in attendance have supported the peace process and have looked forward to its crowning achievement – a new devolved administration and Executive government.  For the union leaders this is the opportunity to win the hearing of, and lobby, local politicians, while for those claiming to be further to the left it has created the institutional arrangements to allow ‘normal’ left-right politics to emerge.

The poor showing at the march simply reflects the fact that this policy is a failure, all the more spectacular because the unions have got exactly what they wanted and yet face exactly the same problems as before.  Only one speaker at May Day alluded to the fact that these problems are actually just about to get worse.  Brian Campfield of NIPSA and Belfast Trades Council noted the strike in the past year by classroom assistant in the North but failed to draw out the lesson that it was our local politicians sitting at Stormont who fought and defeated them.  This wasn’t in the script during all of Bunting’s ‘lobbying, marching, cajoling, complaining, urging, encouraging and appealing to our locally elected politicians to Get On With’, but it was completely predictable.

Our local politicians will also shortly start to impose water charges but the trade unions have not only failed to warn us of this but have ‘lobbied, marched, cajoled’ etc. for the political class that will lead this assault.  Having earnestly wished for power to be given to these politicians, who have no interests in protecting working class people, it should be no surprise that we are exposed and weak when these politicians now attack us.

The attacks are about to get more intense and are being prepared by the Varney report commissioned as an alternative to cutting corporate taxation, a policy which some unions have openly supported (who do they think will pay the taxes foregone then?)  This recommends cutting wages in the public sector, large scale privatisation and a lower regional minimum wage.  This is now on the agenda of our local politicians for whom our union leaders ‘marched’ etc and who may now try to push this agenda through.


Two other things at the May Day march also revealed the current state of the workers’ movement in the North.  Straight after Brian Campfield’s address which mentioned the classroom assistants’ strike a speaker from the union UNISON also spoke.  Nothing from the platform indicated that UNISON also had members who were classroom assistants but that this union had steadfastly refused to support their colleagues in NIPSA.  The reason is not hard to guess.  No union has been more prominent in openly campaigning for the current political deal.  It would conflict with their whole strategy for UNISON to find itself in opposition to the new Stormont regime even when it attacks its own members.

The second scandal surrounding the parade was more openly visible but it too failed to ruffle the day’s proceedings.  Three former airport workers who had been sacked, with the active connivance of the Transport and General Workers Union, had announced that they were going to go on hunger strike.  They were demanding that their former union, which had colluded with management in selling out their strike and then in excluding them from employment at the airport, should honour commitments it had made to pay their legal fees and compensate them for the union’s role in their sacking.  The union reneged on these commitments and the workers are seeking redress.

Jimmy Kelly, a leading official in UNITE, the successor to the TGWU, and a member (?)/supporter (?) of the Socialist Workers Party, spoke from the platform but failed to mention this issue in his forgettable stream of hollow words about solidarity.  Unfortunately his speech went by without any sign of protest beyond a few barely audible cat-calls.  Two of the workers who threatened hunger strike are members of the Socialist Party and the SP handed out a statement on the day explaining what was happening, but beyond this there was no protest!


If we were to sum up what May Day told us it would be this:  The whole political strategy of the trade unions and most of the left, of supporting a new Stormont, has been a debacle for the working class.  Should it continue, as there is every sign of it doing, it could turn into a disaster.  The opposition to this strategy from most of the left is inadequate or non-existent and it is afraid to pin responsibility on the trade union leaders who have led workers to this sorry pass.  None are prepared to oppose the new political set-up, with the most radical contenting themselves with opposition to the politicians occupying the seats at Stormont, but none opposing the whole rotten rickety arrangement itself.

The Varney report reveals the agenda that occupies Stormont and the non-investment conference put on show the ideological propaganda that will justify it.  Unfortunately for them the deteriorating economic situation sits uneasily with all the new Stormont hype. It will only give way to awareness of an alternative however if one is actually thought out, argued and campaigned for.  Recent strikes and bigger attendances at earlier May Day parades demonstrates that some workers are prepared to take real action to defend their interests.

Previous defeats tell us that the old routine methods of fighting must give way to more radical forms of organisation and action. The left should be to the fore in devising and presenting new ways of fighting.  If not, workers will just have to take longer to learn all this themselves.  Their lack of enthusiasm for their current leaders, as evidenced at May Day, is at least somewhere to start.


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