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Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party on sectarianism

Joe Craig

18th January 2002

At the ICTU anti-sectarianism rally at Belfast City Hall on 18th January both the Socialist and Socialist Workers Party (SP & SWP) gave out leaflets addressing the questions imposed on workers facing sectarian threats and attacks.  Both organisations failed to adequately address or answer these questions.

Socialist Party

The Socialist Party contribution was nothing short of a disgrace, but not a surprise given their recent politically criminal behaviour.  Let us set the context.  For well over a year a campaign of sectarian attacks waged by loyalist paramilitaries, primarily the UDA, has terrorised catholic workers, culminating in the murder of young postman Daniel McColgan.

Through most of this period the British State claimed that the loyalist paramilitaries were actually on ceasefire, the effect of which can only be understood as one of condoning the attacks.  As we have reported elsewhere the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has continued the failure of the RUC to convict any of the killers involved. The formal acknowledgement of the ending of the UDA’s ceasefire signalled no change in policy against them.

The political significance of all this should be clear.  The peace process provides a cover for sectarian attacks on Catholic workers because to confront the bigots responsible would destabilise the process.  It allows the British to continue to prevent any real reforms as these too would only destabilse the process by further enraging loyalism.  Hence the British interest in tolerating, if not actually sponsoring, loyalist attacks.

To put it simply, loyalists have carried out the vast majority of sectarian attacks and are responsible for the heightening of intimidation and terror which the trade union protests were are reaction to.  This is widely understood.  The vast majority of workers are well aware who threatens them.  Yet shamefully the Socialist Party in their leaflet does not even mention loyalism!  Apparently sectarianism in general is to be opposed but its origin, character and real life existence is a mystery.

As we said, this should be no surprise.  For a number of years recently the SP promoted a leading representative of one of these loyalists sectarian death squads, Billy Hutchinson, as a socialist!  We have yet to hear any accounting of this disgraceful policy from the SP.

Needless to record, they have nothing to say about the British State that sponsors and protects the sectarians.  Yet the failure of the British State quite quickly became a real issue commented on by the major parties and acknowledged by many workers.  But the SP remains silent.

It can be little wonder that if they cannot identify the enemy they can propose no way of defeating it.  Because they identify the cause of sectarianism with economic and social deprivation their solution is one of workers unity around economic and social demands.  Their ‘solution’ remains determined to avoid all the real political problems, as does that of the SWP.

Socialist Workers Party

If the SWP leaflet is better, it could hardly have been worse.  They are not afraid to identify the UDA as the instigators of the sectarian attacks but they are less forthright in their identification of the British State that stands behind them: ‘Neither can we rely on the police to deal with the UDA.  They have a long and sinister connection with loyalist killers.’

Having said that in the end their proposals for the way forward resemble closely those of the SP, although they do manage to pose this in more concrete terms - that of setting up union anti-sectarian committees.  Unfortunately this positive proposal is immediately negated by their praise for the bureaucrats of ICTU: ‘The ICTU has responded magnificently to the death threats.’

This is far from the truth.

The real initiative has come from rank and file workers, first in the post office, who went out on strike but also from teachers in reaction against the threats against them.  ICTU from the start sought the endorsement and active support of the government and bosses’ organisations for their action and limited their strike call to public sector workers only.  The government and bosses made their opposition to the half day stoppage clear and while the rallies were a success the strike was not.  ICTU made clear before, during and afterwards that a social partnership approach was to be taken to fighting sectarianism, the same approach so useless in defending terms and conditions.  They also made clear their complete support for the PSNI.

The real problem with this is that it fails to inform workers that if they want a real campaign against sectarianism it is precisely this approach that has to be overcome and that this means confronting and defeating ICTU, not praising their magnificence.

Where are we at?

Both organisations seem to lose all sense of perspective when any group of workers takes action.  The Socialist Party believes that ‘We have already dealt the bigots a massive blow.’  Unfortunately this is not yet the case.  The SWP while correctly praising the postal workers for their strike action, ‘until they extracted a promise from paramilitaries that there would be no more threats to their lives.’ appear not to notice that these workers went back to work reluctantly precisely because they realise they have not escaped threat.

Finally both organisations reveal their chronic economism; that is their fear of political issues and advancing a political programme, by their joint insistence that the fight against sectarianism must culminate in a fight for better economic and social conditions.  Do these organisations seriously believe that workers value higher pay above their own lives?  Do they themselves believe that the political questions of defence and policing are less important than wages and conditions?

To ask these questions is to demonstrate that far from raising the consciousness of workers and giving them political leadership these organisations tail behind workers and present a wrong way forward for any of them radicalised through participation in strike action and demonstrations.



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