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Report on trade union anti-cuts demo in Belfast

JM Thorn

25 October 2010

Last Saturday (23rd) trade unions held a march and rally in Belfast to protest at the cuts announced in the British Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).  This coincided with events taking place in England, Scotland and Wales on the same day.  The Belfast event attracted around four thousand people, and took the form of a march from the Arts College to City Hall. As marchers congregated outside Belfast City they were addressed by a number of speakers. 

The first to speak was Avril Hall Callaghan, chair of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU.  She warned that the cuts announced in the CSR were just the start, and that workers shouldn’t have to pay for a crisis they didn’t create.  She pledged trade union support for the efforts of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to get a better settlement, and called on the British Government to honour the various political agreements that had been made.  Avril highlighted the fact that there was an election coming soon, warning politicians to listen to the voice of the people, particularly the 250,000 trade unions members who could cast a vote. She said that the local trade unions would step up the campaign of opposition to the cuts, and also link up with trade unions in GB. She concluded by asserting that there was a Better Fairer Way.   The next speaker was ICTU assistant general secretary Peter Bunting.  He said that the demonstration was a clear message to politicians.  He claimed the burden of cuts announced in the CSR fell on the poor, the ill, women and children.  For him what was particularly galling was that fact that a cabinet full of millionaires was cutting benefits.  Peter compared the harsh treatment of those on benefits to that of the bankers, who were being asked to give up only £2bn under the bank levy.  He also highlighted ongoing cuts in social care and the proposal to raise student fees.  Peter said that the financial elite viewed workers and the poor as a bank of last resort.  He attacked the Lib Dems for providing cover to the Tories.   He said that 30,000 jobs in the north under threat as a result of the cuts.  He attacked bank economists for being cheerleaders for the cuts, and compared them unfavourably to various Nobel Prize winning economists. Nearing the end of his speech Peter put forward a number of alternative suggestions for cutting the budget deficit.  These included a one off wealth tax on the richest ten percent of the population; a tax on financial speculation; and a crackdown on tax evasion / avoidance.  It was claimed that such measures would eliminate the deficit within a year. Peter said that the Government was using the deficit to justify cuts, but the reality was that UK debt was not high by historical standards.  He pointed out that debt was much higher in 1948, yet the government of the day was still able to establish the welfare state and NHS. Peter told marchers that ICTU would soon be hosting a conference to develop an alternative economic strategy. He concluded by urging local politicians to stand up for the people of Northern Ireland and congratulated Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for joining with political leaders in Scotland and Wales to issue a declaration against the cuts. 

The third speaker was Pamela Dooley, chair of ICTU Women's Committee. She said that spending cuts represented an attack on the poor, women and children.   According to her most of the workers facing the prospect of losing their jobs were women.  Pamela claimed that the cuts would bring society to the brink of economic and social disaster – many health and social services would disappear; students would be forced to give up on university; there would be an increase in homelessness; while those on benefits and low pay would be driven further into poverty.  She reiterated her point that women, as workers, carers for children and users of public services, would suffer most as a result of cuts.    For her the cuts were an onslaught on human rights.   However, she said that the trade unions would not leave the most vulnerable bee to face this challenge alone.  There was a better way, and this was based on equality, justice and rights.  Pamela claimed that there was a hysteria being whipped up against public sector workers.  She said that public services could help in the economic recovery and in the regeneration of disadvantaged areas.  In her conclusion she called for negotiations with the UK government to be to be reopened, and warned politicians that if they didn’t get a better deal they would be punished at the polls. 

After Pamela’s speech there was an interlude in which a drama company from Derry gave a theatrical presentation on the cuts.   The speaker after this was Eugene McGlone of UNITE.   He said that the rally sent out a message of solidarity, that people weren’t going to accept the misery that some politicians wanted to impose upon them.  He then took a number of rhetorical swipes at the Stormont finance minister, describing his views as Sammynomics, and dubbing him “White flag Wilson”.  According to Eugene, Sammy Wilson was too eager to please Westminster and was undermining the people of Northern Ireland.  He said that Wilson should try living on a low wage or benefit to get a sense of the real world.  He mentioned estimates that the cuts would costs 36,000 jobs, but also highlighted the fact that thousands jobs had already being lost in the construction and manufacturing sectors.  He said that cuts would sacrifice the futures of young people - bankers couldn’t be allowed to gamble with the future and needed to be held to account.  Eugene called for a crackdown on tax evasion/tax avoidance and for investment in green industries.   Summing up he said stoat the coalition government had no mandate to devastate communities, and that we were at the start of a campaign that force it to change course.

The fifth speaker was Mike Kirby of the Scottish TUC.  He began by claiming that the financial crisis was being used as a cover to destroy the welfare sate, and that the cuts announced in the CSR were just the beginning.  In Scotland, 60,000 jobs under threat, while one million could go across the UK in both the public and private sectors.   Mike said that most of the jobs would be lost in areas were the Tories had no support.  He said that the need for jobs and services still existed, and that the cuts didn’t make economic sense.  He claimed that they were driven by ideology.  Like a previous speaker he mentioned that debt had been higher in the past, and had been higher in 1948 when the welfare sate was established.   Towards the end of his speech he put forward a number of alternative measures for cutting the deficit such as s Robin Hood tax on speculation; a crackdown on tax evasion and a levy on the rich.  He claimed that the coalition had no mandate for cuts in the devolved regions of the UK.  Mike concluded by saying that there should be no division between workers in public and private sectors.  He said that trade unions wouldn’t be going away, and that there was a better way.

The next speaker was Manus Maguire, a community worker from north Belfast. He said that Tories had to be stopped.  For him community services were frontline services, and that any cuts would result in more crime, anti-social behaviour and sectarianism.   Manus concluded by urging people to continue opposing the introduction of water charges.  The final speaker was Eamonn McCann of Derry Trades Council.  In a reference to a comment made by the secretary of state, he said that it was the likes of Owen Paterson, who didn’t have any financial worries, who were living on another planet.  Eamonn said that every job had to be defended and every cut fought against, and that if workers were united they could transform society.   For him the display of so many trade union banners was a glorious sight.  He urged communities to support trade union when they take action and for unions to support communities.  Eamonn said that there was no need for cuts  -  the resources would be there if the rich were made to pay there fair share.  He said workers could be players’ not just spectators; that the working class was the sleeping giant of local politics, and if workers fought they could win.   For Eamonn the message to politicians should be – don’t agree to cuts and don’t engage in blame games.   He concluded with a quote from a poem by Shelley that urged people “rise up like lions”

The demonstration in Belfast was had some positive features. Firstly, there was an impressive turnout. This indicates that there is strong public sentiment against the cuts, and that the trade unions had made a serious attempt to mobilise their own members.  The bulk of the demonstration was made up of workers drawn from a wide range of trade unions.  It had a much livelier atmosphere than the typical trade union rallies we have come to expect over the years.  Secondly, some of what was said by the speakers was useful in terms of debunking the myths around the deficit and the necessity for cuts.  Putting forward alternatives to cuts that shift the burden of the recession from workers to the capitalist class is also useful. 

Where the current trade union approach is weakest is on the strategy of opposing the cuts.  What is being proposed doesn’t really go beyond lobbying, and a hope that political leaders can be persuaded by a good argument.   There is also a danger of this moving in the very reactionary direction of workers getting behind “their politicians” as they seek a better deal at the expense of someone else.  This was certainly implicit in some of the speeches on Saturday that proposed some kind of alliance of the “devolved regions” against the cuts.  This writes off whole sections of the working class in Britain, and ties workers to political leaders that are just as willing to wield the axe as any Tories.  It also separates workers in the north from workers in the south who have been facing even greater austerity measures over the past two years.  With echoes of the Better Fairer Way and “sharing the pain” in what the northern leaders of ICTU are putting forward there are important lessons to be drawn from experiences of workers in the south.   It is the task of socialists and rank and file trade union activists to bring these into the developing anti-cuts movement in the north so it may have a better change of realising its potential. 


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