Northern Ireland: Workers' Unity Alone Can Defeat Sectarianism

The recent broadcast of two unusually frank TV dramas exposing the horrors of Bloody Sunday in 1972, is a timely reminder of the role played by British imperialism in Ireland. If it is possible, the murder of those thirteen innocent people fighting for their rights is made even more tragic by nightly news bulletins thirty years later reporting the mounting toll of sectarian violence which shatters the myth of the so-called peace process.

The idea that there is peace is a sham. Official figures tell a very different story, with sectarian killings rising from 7 in 1999, to 18 in 2000 and 17 in 2001. The divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been wider. This gulf was created and nurtured by British imperialism in order to divide and rule, to protect their system in Ireland from the threat of united working class action. It is an unnatural growth. In carving up the living body of Ireland through partition British imperialism unleashed a carnival of reaction just as the great socialist James Connolly had predicted.

The blame for the current situation therefore lies at the door of British imperialism. They can never offer a solution to a problem they created. The history of the last eighty years proves that. The current promises of peace are just their latest cruel deception. They have created a Frankenstein's monster in the shape of sectarianism, which they cannot control. It has taken on a life of its own and they are powerless to rein it in. On the one hand they rely on it to maintain their rule, on the other they would like rid of the whole costly mess. This problem is insoluble for them; in fact it is insoluble on the basis of capitalism.

The poisonous weed of sectarianism planted by British imperialism has been watered and fed by the actions of sectarians and bigots ever since. For the last thirty years the situation has been aggravated by the failed policy of the Provisional IRA - which Marxists characterise as individual terrorism. This has not achieved a single one of its objectives and instead has succeeded only in providing an excuse for reactionary measures from the British government and in driving a deep wedge between the unionist and nationalist communities of the North.

The reality of the North in 2002 is little peace but lots of peace-lines. Today there are 12 neighbouring estates divided by these brick walls or steel barriers, testimony to the failure and the inability of British imperialism, or the sectarian politicians on all sides to find a solution. Their latest effort, the Good Friday agreement, raised hopes of peace. But these soon proved to be cruel illusions - as the Marxists predicted at the time.

Figures released by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive show that in 1994 three thousand people moved into areas where the population was overwhelmingly made up of the other religious background, buoyed no doubt by the promise of peace. By 1996 this trend had more than reversed with more than six thousand families moving into areas dominated by their own religion. The 2001 census backs up these figures with the following statistic. In 1991 63% of the population lived in areas that were either more than 90% Protestant or more than 90% Catholic. The 2001 survey found that this figure had increased to 66%.

We have consistently pointed to the role played by the failed methods of the Provisional IRA, in driving a wedge between the population, and thus widening the gulf created by British imperialism. The experience of the last thirty years demonstrates this to be true. In reality the willingness of Adams and co to sign a deal that includes none of their demands, is a confirmation that their methods have failed utterly. They could not defeat British imperialism in this way if they continued for another 30 years, or even longer. They have accepted partition. There are 3000 dead, the new assembly is just the old Stormont, and the goal of a united Ireland is further away than ever. Many republicans will be asking what was it all for, and what next?

However this is only one side of the coin. We also consistently condemn the actions of the Loyalist bigots. The increase in their paramilitary activity, their attacks on children at the Holy Cross school, their death threats against Catholic workers and the brutal murder of postal worker Daniel McColgan, are designed to provoke tit-for-tat attacks, to undermine a peace agreement they cannot accept. This despite the fact that the agreement represents little in the way of compromise other than cosmetic exercises. Just imagine the response of these reactionary bigots if there were even a single step towards uniting Ireland in any of these documents.

The greatest crime of these sectarians has been to sow division in the working class. The growing segregation of the population increasingly applies to the workplace too. A recent survey of 40,000 jobs in Belfast found that a mere 5% of the workforce in companies located in areas dominated by the Protestant community are Catholic and just 8% of workers in Catholic dominated areas are Protestant. No doubt this will be jumped upon by those who scoff at the idea of workers' unity as grist to their mill

Yet there is hope to be found here. Despite the bald figures above, the one force capable of bringing lasting peace and tackling the problems of all working people in Ireland demonstrated its power to overcome the sectarian divide on January 18. In a remarkable demonstration of the potential for united working class action, thousands upon thousands of workers, Catholic and Protestant, staged a half-day general strike against sectarian attacks and killings.

January 18

The final straw was the murder of a young postal worker Daniel McColgan, shot dead by the UFF as he turned up for work. The teachers' unions were already under intense pressure from the membership to take some form of action. Then, when Daniel McColgan was murdered, the postal workers gave an immediate lead by walking out.

The papers report that McColgan had wanted a transfer from Newtonabbey postal centre on the outskirts of north Belfast. The 20-year-old postal worker apparently wanted to leave the sorting office in the centre of Rathcoole, one of the largest housing estates in Western Europe and a stronghold of the bigots of the Ulster Defence Association. Instead he became the latest victim of a conflict that makes a mockery of the media claim that the people of Northern Ireland are living in a period of unprecedented peace. McColgan came from north Belfast, where a quarter of all the deaths in the last three decades occurred.

His neighbourhood is dominated by a 50ft "peace line" dividing it from the Protestant White City area. He was singled out simply because he was a Catholic working in "loyalist territory". The bigots who killed him attempt to provoke a response, their sick graffiti, which we will not reproduce here, is designed to pour fuel on the flames. The response they provoked was a united movement of workers.

Under immense pressure from below the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was forced to call a twelve-hour strike to start at noon on Friday January 18. There was an immediate and overwhelming response from workers. Thousands of postal workers turned out on the Tuesday for the funeral of their murdered colleague. Later that day a thousand turned up for a mass meeting which decided to maintain the strike until the death threat was lifted. There was not a single voice raised against this at the meeting.

On the Friday itself schools were closed for the afternoon and public transport ground to a virtual standstill. Hospitals, ambulance and fire crews were on emergency cover and members of the Communication Workers Union, Mr McColgan's workmates, marched from their headquarters in Belfast in their distinctive orange and black jackets

With 50,000 to 80,000 workers on the streets of Belfast this was the biggest such trade union organised event in decades. Thousands more turned out in Derry, Omagh, Newry, Strabane and across the north. Perhaps 100,000 in total participated in marches and rallies. This from a population of around one and a half million!

What a demonstration of the power of the united working class, and what an answer to the cynics who deny the "practicality" of a united workers struggle! The "practical" solutions of these ladies and gentlemen have brought us to the current impasse. To believe that Blair's school playground diplomacy and pious speeches can solve the problem is utterly utopian. Those on the left who cling to the idea of solving the border question first and then struggling for socialism later have clearly learned nothing from the last thirty years.

The re-unification of Ireland is in reality the unsolved task of the national democratic revolution, which ought to have been solved eighty years ago. But it can never be solved by the bourgeoisie. They were the ones who created the division. Only the coming to power of the working class can solve this problem. We are for the unification of Ireland, but we are opposed to the Stalinist theory of stages, which says that we must postpone the perspective of socialist revolution "until Ireland is united". Ireland will never be united until the working class takes power north and south of the border. By subordinating the socialist revolution and the general interests of the workers to the border issue, the petit bourgeois nationalists have prepared a catastrophe.

Nationalism is a blind alley. Marxism is internationalist, not for sentimental reasons but practical ones. The workers of other countries are our comrades in the struggle against their bosses and our own. Marxism bases itself on a class policy. The national and social questions in Ireland, the question of unification and the struggle for jobs, housing etc., are inextricably linked as James Connolly explained 100 years ago. In both cases the enemy is the same, capitalism. Only the working class can solve these problems, because only the working class can defeat capitalism. We saw just a glimpse of that power on January 18.

The massive turnout on January 18 accurately reflected the anger of workers, Catholic and Protestant at the nightly sectarian fighting, the constant attacks on Ambulance personnel, Fire-fighters, bus drivers and on school children, Catholic and Protestant, travelling to and from school.

Sectarian violence

During the whole period since the ceasefire and the signing of the Good Friday agreement, there has in reality been no peace process on the streets of north Belfast and neighbouring east Antrim. Over the past two years there has been a sharp rise in paramilitary violence, mainly from the UDA and other loyalists opposed to the agreement. In the same period there has been a leap in pipe bomb attacks involving crude explosive devices.

Lead and copper piping, a soldering iron, nails, bolts and fireworks and gunpowder have been used in a wave of terror against Catholics. Last year 117 such devices were thrown at Catholic homes with the aim of driving them out of Protestant areas.

It is widely believed that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the new name for the RUC, knows the identities of those directing the new wave of loyalist terrorism. But even though almost 100 people have been killed by paramilitaries since 1998, only one person has been convicted of murder. It seems they have to be careful not to upset their informants inside the loyalist groups. Just including a few Catholics and changing the name doesn't alter the basic function of the police as a means of maintaining class rule. These people can play no part in solving the problems of Northern Ireland.

On Friday afternoon, in freezing rain outside Belfast City Hall, tens of thousands of workers protested against Daniel McColgan's murder and the latest upswing in sectarianism. This is the music of the future. Those republicans looking for a way forward can find it here, in a class policy. This is the only force capable of solving the national and social problems of Ireland.

One of the demonstrators wore a gas mask and held up a placard with the legend: "Sectarianism stinks". The stench of bigotry still hangs in the air in north Belfast and east Antrim. The UDA has called publicly for an end to attacks on public service workers. It took a matter of hours for the UFF - who use the cover name of the Red Hand Defenders to make such threats - to order the RHD to disband. No doubt in the weeks and months ahead the UFF will simply invent another cover from behind which to launch such attacks, nevertheless it gives us a glimpse of the real power a movement of the working class has to undermine these bigots. A movement of the workers imposed a defeat on them in twelve hours that no other force has been able to in years.

Wanted - a militant leadership!

The only sour note in the proceedings was introduced by the union leaders' failure to issue clear calls for a strike, seeking permission from management for workers to participate, in some cases negotiating two hour breaks instead of a half day general strike.

There is an understanding that the sectarian polarisation is greater than ever and that what is happening across North Belfast could spread to other areas. Despite the confusion from the top, the response of the workers was magnificent. The postal workers naturally formed the backbone of the rallies, but there was a big participation by workers from all sectors, areas and backgrounds. If only the determination of these workers was matched by their leaders who still fail to draw the lessons of this movement and offer a way forward.

Neither sectarian politicians, nor those from the South or Britain have any answer, but on the streets of Belfast and across the north we got a glimpse on January 18 of a real solution to all the problems of all the workers of the North, beginning with the problem of sectarian violence. The trade unions should form the basis for defence organisations to protect workers from all communities against such assaults and murders. With a programme to tackle the day to day problems of workers, a united struggle could be waged against the bosses on jobs, wages, conditions and services.

But instead of calling for such an independent campaign the union leaders have followed the rallies with appeals to the "social partners" - the churches, employers and government to take things forward. However, the strength of the working class when it acts alone, under its own banners, has been shown. The trade union leadership may not have drawn any lessons from this but sections of the rank and file will have. One strike and one rally however is not enough. Since then the sectarian attacks have continued their frightening monotony, with petrol bombs, pipe bombs and firebombs, in spiralling tit-for-tat assaults.

January 18 shows the only way forward. A united campaign of workers fighting against these attacks can isolate and defeat the bigots. United around a programme for social change such a movement and such a movement alone can begin to tackle all the problems faced by the workers of the North. United with their brothers and sisters in the South and across the Irish Sea such a force would be unstoppable.

One thing is certain there can be no way out on the basis of capitalism. During its best period, the period of boom, the capitalists were unable to solve one of the problems facing the workers of the north. In the south, as we've explained in these pages previously, the celtic tiger boom was created in no small measure by the increased exploitation of workers. The degenerate southern bourgeois do not want the north.

The best the British ruling class could offer was a new Stormont. This may have been good enough for one or two nationalist politicians, but how can the Assembly begin to tackle the problems of housing, education and health on the basis of capitalism? Any move towards positive discrimination will only fuel sectarianism. The resources exist to meet the needs of all, but in private hands they are employed to make profit for a few rather than meeting society's needs. The tinkering of British imperialism during the boom is preparing a catastrophe in the event of a slump in the economy.

The coming slump will hit the six counties hard. Without a united workers' struggle based on a class policy, rising unemployment will fuel the flames of sectarianism. It becomes clear that to tackle the problems facing workers requires a radical break with capitalism. That requires a united struggle of workers that cannot be confined by borders or divided by anything. A class policy of a united workers' struggle against the common enemy, the bankers, landlords and capitalists, for jobs, housing etc, undermines the social roots of sectarianism.

Such united action could defeat sectarianism and bigotry, the obstacles to real change in Ireland - socialist change, the only change that can bring peace, equality, jobs and housing. United with the workers of the South and of Britain no force on earth could stop the Irish working class.