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Reflections on the anti-sectarianism rally in Belfast

Joe Craig

23rd August 2002

The rally at Belfast City Hall on 2nd August called by the City Council in protest at the murder of a young Catholic, Gerard Lawlor, attracted an estimated 3,000 people according to press reports. Certainly the attendance was well down on the earlier protest at the same spot in January.  The crowd was addressed by the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, Alec Maskey, a representative from the Bosses organisation the CBI, Bob Gourley of the Northern Ireland Committee if the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NICTU) and by various clergy from the main Christian denominations.

The January Rallies

The reduced attendance was not the most disappointing aspect of the protest since it indicated that despite the failures of all those on the platform there were many prepared to register a protest.  The demonstrators had to reject the opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party (and the Socialist Party!) who both labelled it anti-Protestant.  There was also a widely reported questioning of the usefulness of such rallies and it was indisputably pointed out that they had all failed in the past to stop the killing.  Nevertheless the political establishment, in its broadest sense (excepting the unionists already mentioned), supported the rally with various degrees of enthusiasm and the failure to attract the numbers of earlier in the year has to be explained.

First we should be clear on the comparison.  Some on the left quite simply got carried away with the protest in January and have started to quote statistics and judgements that are well wide of the mark. It is important to correct these because failure to do so can lead to uncontested evaluations that are later quoted as gospel.  For example the Socialist Party is fond of citing the peace rallies of the early 1990s, which had a decidedly anti-IRA character, despite loyalists killing more people, as examples of mass working class protest that forced the paramilitaries to call their ceasefires.  In fact these rallies played a minor role in the calling of the IRA ceasefire but this assertion makes it easier for the SP to tail end the peace process as its loyal left critics and treat it as if it has some progressive content.

The SP has quoted a figure of 100,000 workers protesting in January.  In fact the real figure is less than half this. Estimates in the press of the Belfast rally were around 30,000 and from our own observations this was generally accurate.  There were allies in several other towns but none anywhere near this size and it is doubtful if the total reached 50,000 across the North.  To pretend otherwise is to substitute wishful thinking for harder reality.  There is no need to inflate the figures; the actual turnout was a powerful enough reflection of widespread opposition to heightened sectarianism and willingness to take action.

A more serious misjudgement is made by members of the Socialist Workers Party who have on more than one occasion claimed that what occurred on 18th January was a general strike.  A general strike is a more or less open challenge for power against the existing state and even one of short and definite duration is a confrontation with the existing order that requires a high level of working class consciousness and organisation.  Neither exists at present in the North.

The strike action that took place in January was very limited.  Most workers who took action did so for a few hours and few were on strike all day, the original call of NICTU.  What action took place was almost always agreed or supported by management.  Strike action was almost completely confined to the public sector and even those workers specifically under threat such as teachers did not unanimously come out.  The militant and determined activity of postal staff stood out precisely because it was particularly impressive and not generalised.  The private sector was almost completely untouched.

But even these facts are not the most important.  Most important was the fact that NICTU sought agreement from management and bosses for the strike and sought their explicit endorsement for a 24 hour stoppage.  They complained, not very loudly, when they didn’t get it.  There was no call to break with the bosses or to strike against them.  A particular point of the whole protest was that the ‘social partners’ were to stand shoulder to shoulder.  Limited action that only takes place with the sanction of the bosses hardly constitutes a strike, with all the associated aspects that can be assumed from such an event, such as some sort of independent stand being taken in opposition to the employer.  It can justifiably be claimed that the bosses didn’t want strike action of any kind, not even for a few hours, and that the protests forced acceptance of limited action.  But this only modifies the analysis and does not negate it – there was no fundamental break with or from the bosses or state because none was intended.  To describe this as a general strike is more wishful thinking.

So if the protests of January were not what some have claimed they nevertheless revealed widespread anger at what was happening and a desire to take action. The strike action by postal staff, and others since, shows determination to disregard management strictures when it comes to defending basic interests, January 18th could have become the starting point of an independent working class movement against sectarianism even if it was not that already.  The main responsibility for this failure lies with the trade union hierarchy of NICTU.  SWP claims in January that ICTU’s response to sectarianism had been ‘magnificent’ showed a real failure of judgement over what was happening and results from that organisations economistic practice and lack of political understanding.

At the January rally the Socialist Democracy leaflet warned workers that ‘a final hurdle remains.  Workers need to recognise that the trade union leadership, always anxious to balance in the middle, will shy away from any sustained street campaign against the bigots in return for a seat at the table of the great and the good. Today on the streets we have an alternative to bigotry.  That’s the easy part.  Keeping that alternative alive requires:  independent organisation by working people’ and ‘willingness to stay on the streets and to take industrial action.’

The August Rally

The problems of the August rally expressed in the lower turnout result from the failure of NICTU to do this and to launch any campaign against sectarianism despite promises to do so.  Their activity has been confined mainly to seeking to act as honest broker between the bigots and their victims and to giving advice to loyalist paramilitaries on how they could make their bigotry more articulate.  No rank and file initiative was put together and we have had to await another sectarian killing and more independent workers action for NICTU to move.  In this case not to call action themselves but to support that called by Belfast City Council, that well known repository of tolerance and enlightenment.

This failure to take action arises not from any moral cowardice on the part of NICTU but from political failure to analyse the source of bigotry and the dynamic behind it.  Why, if so many are opposed to sectarianism, is it on the increase?  (See article ‘Opposing ALL Sectarianism)

The lower turnout is reflection of a number of factors: opposition by some unionists, the less generalised nature of the threats before the August Demonstration than before the January one.  The most important however is this failure of the trade unions to make good their promise to launch a real campaign.  It is from this that the growing cynicism of the purpose and effectiveness of rallies against sectarianism arise.  Such cynicism becomes justified when the trade union hierarchy fails to do more than call rallies under pressure and make moralising speeches that go nowhere near addressing the problem.  Their strategy invites cynicism.

These rallies regularly hear condemnations of paramilitaries but then hear appeals to these same paramilitaries to stop, presumably under the moral suasion of the mass protests.  Few believe that they will ever respond to moralistic appeals for peace and those that demonstrate do so as a protest with little illusion that much if anything will be achieved.  The demonstrators may not articulate the problem as we have done but they know when they are doing no more than making a gesture.  The situation calls out for a real strategy.

Appealing to the killers to stop killing has failed and only the most naive could sincerely believe it has any prospect of success.  Basing demonstrations on such appeals is therefore going to achieve nothing.  Being asked by clerics to pray for the members of Belfast City council invites derision.

Instead protesters have to be aware of why sectarianism is on the increase and who exactly is responsible.  One of the most sickening aspects of the rise of sectarianism is the constant refrain from the British politicians and media to stop the ‘blame game.’  That we are asked to stop saying who is responsible for sectarianism is an open acknowledgement that these people are not interested in who is to blame and are certainly not going to stop them.

It is clear that it is loyalist paramilitaries who are behind most of the sectarian attacks and have engaged on a sustained campaign of intimidation.  It is equally clear that Loyalist paramilitaries have been founded, sponsored and supported by successive British administrations and are heavily penetrated by agents and informers.  The British State is currently the only force that can almost immediately pull the plug on their activities.  However as long as the British avoid any blame, as long as we are invited to oppose ALL sectarianism without mentioning any in particular there is no political price to be paid by the British for their sponsorship of the loyalist’s campaign.  Only a campaign that seeks to make the British pay such a political price has any hope of success.

Can anyone imagine the current ICTU leaders saying that the British State must end its collaboration with Loyalism?  To ask the question is to answer it.  Are there the beginnings of a rank and file workers movement that will raise this strategy anyway?  Unfortunately not.  So where could it come from?

This is where a genuine Marxist left should come to the fore: propagandising such a strategy and patiently explaining what is going on and how spontaneous strike action must become organised to raise political demands.  We have only to compare the pathetic arguments of the existing left organisations to realise how far away we are from such a genuine Marxist left. (Again see article ‘Opposing ALL Sectarianism)  Creation of such a left is posed by this as by so many challenges facing the working class and this is the central task to which Socialist Democracy is dedicated.

In the meantime we would urge all those who agree with our analysis of the struggle against sectarianism to support our declaration against sectarianism and to join us in our attempts to build a real anti-sectarian current within the Irish working class.



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