Loyalist bus hi-jackings
11 November 2021
Translink bus and Glider drivers protest at Belfast City Hall.
Following a second bus burning by the Protestant Action Force, a cover name for the UVF, bus drivers staged a protest at City Hall in Belfast and refused to drive into areas where the threat of loyalist violence existed. It was a spontaneous and highly successful protest and the union leaders were left playing catch up.
The bus burning was an overtly political act. As was the background to it. Unionism supported Brexit in the expectation that it would resurrect a hard trade border in Ireland. This expectation was dashed when the British government led by Boris Johnson, signed up to the NI Protocol. It conferred a special trade status on the northern state which granted businesses based there access to the EU single market for goods. One of the consequences of this arrangement was the introduction of checks on manufactured and agricultural products moving from GB to Northern Ireland.
The role of the Irish government in the creation of the Protocol should also be noted. Rather than the Protocol being part of an aggressive nationalist agenda advanced by the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and foreign minister Simon Coveney – as the DUP are now claiming – it was actually a concession to the British. It was at the Anglo-Irish summit in Southport that Varadkar gave up the Irish backstop (an arrangement that would have avoided many of the current trade related problems by keeping the GB and the whole of Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union) for the much weaker NI Protocol. The Protocol was demanded by the British and conceded to by the EU in the belief that it would help the Johnson government get some form of Brexit agreement over the line
Unionists have campaigned vociferously against the NI Protocol claiming that the introduction of checks at Irish Sea ports would lead to social unrest. They have repeatedly prompted their support base to fulfil that prediction in order to justify the triggering of Article 16 of the protocol agreement.
The British government and unionism played up the impact of the protocol and, while the mass base of unionism did not respond, the loyalist groups – taking the que from their political masters - mobilised. Scenes of unrest in the north of Ireland feed in to the narrative of crisis and instability and aid a British strategy designed to force the removal of all checks at the Irish Sea ports and make the southern government, the weakest link, to assume responsibility for policing the economic frontier with the EU.
The loyalist paramilitaries who as usual act with impunity, rolled out their media representative, Billy Hutchinson, to announce that because of the “constitutionally damaging impact of the protocol” the PUP/UVF, the parent body of the PAF, had decided that there was no longer any “basis for unionist support” for the Good Friday Agreement. Jeffrey Donaldson quickly agreed. Again, the obvious intention was to provide evidence that the conditions existed for the British government's triggering of Article 16.
By this stage a second bus driver had been threatened and hi-jacked in as many weeks and with the obvious political background to the attacks it would also seem obvious that opposition to these reactionary political acts of violence would provoke a frank and honest response to those politics from workers organisations. But no!
The union response was layered. While at leadership level everyone deplored the attacks and support for the drivers was universal the lessons on how we got here didn't see the light of day. That would be 'taking sides'! The drivers were angry enough about the loyalist attacks to park their buses and protest their right not to allow themselves to be burned in their cabs by the PAF. A pretty basic demand you might think but the local full time union officials rushed to put an acceptable gloss on that 'unfaceable' fact.
They, like the rest of respectable society dared not direct their wrath at loyalist paramilitaries so they carefully avoided taking a position on the reactionary politics behind the attacks. They were bystanders, or in their own words “political punchbags”, caught in the middle of a political dispute they were incapable of understanding or taking a position on. So, although the loyalist attacks were the practical outworking of the campaign for Brexit, and against the Protocol, all political content was stripped from the protest.
Par for the course it's true. There is a long record of the northern union bureaucracy presenting the working class as being innocent of all political thought and the cry that it should be left to “the politicians” is de rigueur in union interviews and statements. But it is based on the old lie that the cause of the conflict comes down to sectarian communal hatred or “community tensions”, and that both sides are equally to blame with trade unions, civil society and the state caught in the middle where they try to act as honest brokers between warring sectarian working class factions.
In order to escape the obvious logic of drivers' protesting against a violent loyalist anti protocol campaign the bus burnings were given equal status with some incidents of petty hooliganism by youths on the Glider in west Belfast. This cynical manoeuvre was deployed to present an image of neutrality with the workforce being attacked equally by both sides. The rationale is similar to that applied to interface demonstrations where loyalist gangs attack nationalist housing, again with impunity, and those who respond in defence are condemned for sectarian rioting and are attacked by the police with the kind of force never used against loyalists.
The left response
The union bureaucracy's avoidance of 'politics' is long established, but what of the socialists who mimic them? While Unite's British HQ, the local press and even the bourgeois parties did better and linked the burnings to the anti-protocol campaign the left made do with anodyne comments. Typifying the left response is the comment by PbP that “No worker should be subject to this kind of action”, which is true in a generic sense but it is so vague it is politically meaningless. This is partly the result of their quiet alliance with the union bureaucracy and partly a product of their political weakness on brexit, which is at the root of these reactionary attacks. So, in order to put the entire thing behind them as quickly as possible a momentary suspension of some bus services, pending discussions with loyalist “community leaders”, is considered a victory. But that flies in the face of reality.
It is not the task of revolutionaries to nod their head in approval of a trade union consciousness that has been further distorted by sectarianism and partition nor to support the bureaucracy's falsities, cynically constructed to prove their 'neutrality'. Such political opportunism undermines politically advanced workers who privately condemn the PAF and the entire unionist campaign and it reinforces a tendency towards apolitical neutrality.
It is their task to bring “class political consciousness” to disputes like this, to heighten the political content, to distil and clarify the workers' position and use the experience to at least try to unite the most advanced workers, even those that are only observing events, around political demands.