Return to Recent Articles menu

UNITE’s Belfast conference: “old wine in new bottles”

James Fearon

5 July 2013

Rank and File Unite union members have expressed angry opposition to the Croke Park III agreement (called Haddington Road to protect the guilty) The recent Belfast Conference saw the Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, using language that echoes James Connolly’s ’Old Wine in New Bottles’, say that workers would not be deceived by a deal that was the contents of the ‘Croke Park bottle’.

The radicalism did not last long. No sooner than we have been marched up the hill than the leadership are instructing us to turn around and march back down again. It should come as no surprise, we have been at this point of departure before when Unite rejected Croke Park I. Jimmy made exactly the same noises then but later went in to avoid being ‘victimised’. 

Only the incurably naïve could suggest that we take the bureaucracy’s rhetoric at face value. Radical speeches are followed by a climb down, in this case by means of a re-ballot with a recommendation to ‘accept’ coming from the leadership. 

For years the trade union leadership have hidden their betrayals behind the low level of industrial struggle and the concomitant low level of self confidence among workers. Promises of success at the negotiating table were always linked to reminders of unsuccessful attempts at industrial action. No mention is made of course that the lack of success was as often as not due to the isolation of struggles, not to mention outright betrayal, resulting from a complete lack of support from a reticent leadership tied hand and foot to the economic requirements of the Celtic Tiger. The nurses’ strikes and the Dublin airport baggage handlers strike being classic examples.

This reversal by the Unite leadership was always on the cards, the tough talk was simply bluster as was perfectly clear from the conditions they placed on action. Accompanying, and conflicting with, the urgings to reject the deal were ‘warnings’ to the membership of the negative results we would experience by following the leaderships advice. We were treated to reminders of how vulnerable we are; of the ‘consequences’ of a rejection of the deal and how there could be ‘strikes all over the place’. 

When industrial action is continuously planned and militated for in a determined way, a caution on when and how, but not if, to strike is warranted. When such ‘reminders’ come in the absence of any consistent attempt to organise real resistance they become a threat directed at nascent rank and file militancy. 

Here, Unite’s leadership pledged support for public sector members “in whatever action they deem necessary to protect members’ interests”. This is grossly inadequate. For the leadership to take such a hands off approach and place the ball at the feet of a membership that they signally have refused to organise in any meaningful way for decades is an abrogation of the leadership’s responsibility and a cynical ploy! 

While speeches full of blood and thunder were being made at the Belfast conference, the true intentions of the leadership were revealed in the passage of motion number 8, passed unanimously by conference. 

The motion said that; “the installation of water meters be only carried out by qualified time served plumbers”. 

Behind opposition to the individual conditions imposed on each union in Croke Park III there is a stark reality. That is that all the union leaders have accepted and operated the mechanisms of social partnership, have implemented the austerity programmes and, behind all the shouting about pay and conditions have been operating in silence a joint programme of “modernization” that involves the privatization and sell off of Ireland’s natural resources, with water the plum target.   

In this, the centenary of the Lockout, our leadership shows it has not grasped the concept of solidarity and tainted goods?  The commodification of water as a road to privatisation is tainted, no trade unionist should touch it. A trade union leadership that cannot see that trade unionists should not be participating in the theft of resources from the Irish working class is needs to be ousted.

But why the hollow rhetoric at all? At the centre of the issue is credibility. ICTU and SIPTU are charged with not being credible, even by the mainstream media, this is a death knell for a bureaucracy that is of use to the capitalist class only so long as they can deliver up their working class followers. 

ICTU have no credibility, David Begg sat on the Audit Committee of the Central Bank of Ireland while Anglo Irish Bank was bailed out and, along with the rest of ICTU, remained inactive while Irish health and education provision was being decimated and the skilled workforce at Waterford Crystal were being thrown on the scrapheap. After three disastrous Croke Park deals and a continuing assault on the working class the bureaucracy, or those parts of it that are aware of their tenuous position, try to present a radical face in order to attempt to hold on to some semblance of leadership of the uneasy masses they represent. The real intent is to present a face to workers that convinces them that the leadership intend to fight back while blaming those same workers for any failure to be successful in opposing the government’s austerity drive. 

The entire charade is a conscious betrayal of first principles and must be faced up to by those that want to fight back. Calling on ICTU to act is useless. We should take Brother Kelly at his word when he says that Unite will support workers in what they want to do and begin to organise, independently of the union bureaucracies and ICTU.

Across all unions there is a sizable minority who oppose a Beggar’s Bush sell out that will beggar us all. A considerable body of Unite members believe that the basis of a new rejuvenated trade unionism in Ireland is the basic concept of solidarity that is so sadly missing from all of our leadership.

A rank and file movement can be built now on the basis of existing opposition currents, as is already happening to some extent in SIPTU. We must spread out horizontally, establish links, locally, nationally and internationally - Unite has a vigorous grass roots opposition in the UK.

We must issue the call to repudiate the debt, repudiate the austerity and repudiate the collaboration of union leaderships. We should campaign, organise secondary action and build for an independent conference of Irish labour. Even one centimetre down that road would be a victory, it would be a beginning. Otherwise we are stuck with hollow rhetoric and the sad defeated attitudes that produce motions to conference such as motion number 8 and where the battle around Croke Park III, restricted to the left and right wings of the bureaucracy, never ends with a bang but with a drawn out, empty, whisper. 


Return to top of page