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Postal workers return to work, but threats remain

JM Thorn

18th January 2002

Postal workers under threat

On Wednesday night (16th January) postal workers in Belfast voted to return to work after a three day stoppage called in reaction to the murder of a colleague the previous Saturday (12th January). Daniel McColgan, a 20 year-old Catholic postman, was shot dead by loyalist gunmen in the early hours of the morning as he arrived for work at the Rathcoole sorting office on the outskirts of North Belfast.  A caller to a newspaper claiming to be from the Red Hand Defenders (RHD) claimed the murder of the postal worker and issued a blanket threat to the staff of Catholic schools and Catholic postal workers.  These workers were now being regarded as “legitimate targets” by loyalists.  However, only hours later, the UFF in south east Antrim were privately insisting to journalists that it had carried out the killing.

In response postal workers refused to deliver or collect mail until the threat to them was lifted.  Protestant and Catholic workers were united against loyalist attacks.  The issues were very clear.  A fellow worker had been murdered and Catholic workers were under threat from loyalists.  The action taken to meet this threat was also clear.  There would be no mail until the threat was lifted.  If there is an example of the trade union principle of “an injury to one being an injury to all” in action this was it.  However, solidarity was not the guiding principle behind the actions of the leaders of the CWU (the postal workers’ union).  Although expressing sympathy with their members, the officials’ primary concern along with Post Office management was an end to the strike and a return to “normality”.

The RUC/PSNI played a central role in enabling the CWU to press its members to return to work.   This came in the form of a security briefing to union officials from the senior officer responsible for Belfast, Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan.  He claimed that following an analysis of the series of statements from the Red Hand Defenders and the UFF, it could be concluded that the threat against postal workers “did not come from those who murdered Mr McColgan”.  He also stated he was “90% sure” the initial coded call making the threat “was not a genuine call”.  In conclusion he stated that, as it was Northern Ireland, he could not “offer any guarantees” on security.

This followed a farcical series of events in which the UFF, who had claimed the murder, ordered the RHD, who the police now admit is a non-existent organisation, to disband because it was undermining Loyalism.  Dressed in a black uniform and wearing a mask, and flanked by men brandishing machine guns, a UFF spokesman read a statement which claimed that postal workers and teachers had “nothing to fear from the Ulster Freedom Fighters.”  A few hours later the RHD released a statement announcing that it was disbanding in response to the call from the UFF.  It was on back of these statements and the subsequent police assurances that the CWU recommended a return to work.  However, such assurances are worthless.  They are designed to sow confusion and downplay the violence of loyalists.  In reality, the RHD and the UFF are both cover names for the UDA, which is orchestrating the ongoing offensive against nationalists.  The belief that this organisation does not constitute a threat to Catholic workers is nonsense.  It is no wonder that many postal workers are disgusted by the ending of the strike and by the attitude of their union.   This sense of betrayal was summed up by a West Belfast postman: “The unions went in determined to get us back to work and that was their main priority. . . . We are only going back to work under duress and we feel our union representatives have let us down.”  Postal workers went on strike to remove a threat, but now they are returning to work with that threat still looming over them.

Loyalists given free reign

Workers will also draw little comfort from the record of the security forces in tackling loyalist violence.   While there have been almost 100 paramilitary murders in the past three years, only one person has been convicted.  This was a member of the INLA for the murder of a former police officer in Armagh.  In the last three years, not one loyalist has been convicted of a murder offence, despite the fact that three quarters of the murders since the Omagh bomb in August 1998 have been carried out by loyalist paramilitaries.  The police have also sought to downplay the extant of paramilitary activity.  Their figures claim that only 79 people have been killed by paramilitaries.  However, according to academic and newspaper columnist Brian Feeney, who is co-author of Lost Lives – seen as the definitive account of deaths during the troubles – the figure is closer to 100: “Police have consistently tried to minimise the number of people who have been killed by paramilitaries. There have been many incidents in which the RUC or PSNI have refused to admit that paramilitaries have been responsible for a murder when even the dogs on the street knew that they were responsible. You can believe our statistics or their statistics – the figures speak for themselves. The conviction rate over the last number of years for sectarian killings is nil.”

The government’s own statistics reveal that loyalists have been responsible for more than 500 bomb attacks since the signing of the Good Friday agreement compared to 237 carried out by republicans.  In the same period there have been more than 540 loyalist gun attacks compared to 80 carried out by republicans.  These figures demonstrate clearly that the notion of loyalist violence as a response to that of republicans is a myth.  What has being going on, and what is continuing, is a major loyalist offensive.

Neither is it the case that the lack of police success against loyalists is a result of incompetence.  The reality is that there is no willingness on the part of the police or their political masters to confront loyalism.  This is due in part to the role that the police and army played in building up these groups and directing their activities.  Almost every week new evidence is emerging of the degree to which RUC Special Branch and Army Intelligence were entwined with loyalist paramilitaries.  However, in recent years the overriding imperative has been to maintain the pretence that the UDA ceasefire is intact.  Key to this was the promotion of the myth of the emergence of a new ‘dissident’ loyalist group – the Red Hand Defenders.

It was no co-incidence that the RHD first came to prominence in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  This enabled the UDA to carry on its activities while disclaiming any involvement in sectarian violence.  At the same time the British lavished praise on the UDA for its commitment to the peace process.  The RHD cover name has been used almost exclusively by the UDA and the LVF.  It killed its first Catholic civilian in October 1998 when 35-year-old north Belfast man Brian Service was shot dead near Ardoyne. In March 1999 it claimed to have planted the car bomb which killed prominent human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in her home town of Lurgan.   In July 2001 it claimed responsibility for the murder of Antrim teenager Ciaran Cummings as he stood at a roundabout waiting to go to work.   However, it was later reported that members of the UVF, whose political mouthpiece is the pro-peace Progressive Unionist Party, were responsible.

In July 2001 the RHD claimed responsibility for the murder of Protestant teenager Gavin Brett as he stood with Catholic friends outside a GAA club in Glengormley.   And in September, the group claimed responsibility for the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan in Lurgan.  The last murder claimed by the RHD was of former UDA quartermaster Billy Stobie who was shot dead outside his north Belfast home.  Only a week earlier the case against him for the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane had collapsed.  Stobie’s defence was that he had been a Special Branch agent at the time and had informed his handlers that the murder was about going to take place.  With the possibility of further investigations into the murder of Pat Finuncane, the murder of Stobie suited both the UDA and RUC Special Branch.  In all these cases the police accepted that the RHD was a distinct organisation.  Throughout this period the British government maintained the pretence that the UDA ceasefire was intact.  Secretary of State John Reid periodically announced that the UDA ceasefire was under review.  He even issued what was termed a ‘yellow card’ on one occasion.  In response the UDA would calm down for a few days and then resume its attacks.   It was only in October 2001 that the British government determined that the UDA ceasefire was at an end.  This came on the back of an attack on police and soldiers on the Shankill Road.  Obviously, an attack on the state was viewed differently from those on nationalists.

Clearly the British state has no desire to tackle loyalism.  It built these groups up to fight its dirty war, now in ‘peace’ they play a useful role in diminishing even further the reforms promised to nationalists in the Agreement.  Rather than confront loyalists the British cover their activities with spurious claims that they are result of “Protestant alienation” or an “identity crisis”.

ICTU day of action

The ICTU has also done its utmost to appease loyalism.  It called a day of action in response to the murder of Daniel McColgan and the threats against other workers, but made the basis of the day of action so vague it hardly means anything.   The fact that the threats were from loyalists against Catholic workers has been whitewashed by the spurious notion that attacks were taking place against “both sides” and by making references to IRA atrocities ten years previously.  Rather than naming the UDA as the organisation responsible, ICTU officials merely referred to unspecified paramilitaries. They also claimed that the security forces were workers, despite that fact that they have been providing a cover for the activities of loyalists.

Yet even this vague anti-sectarian platform was too much for unionist politicians.  It was given a lukewarm reaction at best and encountered thinly disguised hostility from most.  The DUP announced that none of its members would be attending any of the rallies.  The proposed day of action, particularly the idea of a half-day strike, was opposed by employers because of the “adverse impact” it would have on business.  First Minister David Trimble expressed his “caution” over the strike, and the head of the Northern Ireland civil service refused to endorse it.   Sinn Fein Education Minister Martin McGuinness also refused to call for the closure of schools, shifting the decision to individual principals.  The response to the ICTU call for a strike reveals not only the sectarianism amongst unionist politicians and employers, but also their hostility towards labour.  They are not even prepared to concede four hours to anti-sectarian activity.

The greatest weakness of the ICTU call for action is its support for the peace process.   The fact is that the peace process is built on sectarianism, and has resulted in increasing polarisation between Protestants and Catholics.  It has also given a licence to loyalists to carry on their terror campaign unhindered.  Secretary of State John Reid states that there will be “no hiding place” for the killers of Daniel McColgan, yet all the evidence suggests that there will be. In the cause of keeping the peace process “on track”, and producing the political results that the British want, the lives of people like Daniel McColgan have no value.  They are expendable and will continue to be expendable.



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