By Bernie McAdam
20 April 2015
The Socialist Party in Ireland is deeply worried. Senior trade union officials like Irish Congress of Trade Unions President John Douglas and Jack O’Connor, leader of the south’s biggest union SIPTU, are courting Sinn Fein. They have responded by producing the article ‘Trade Unions and Sinn Fein: Dangerous Times’  in the hope of nailing the union leaders’ lie that Sinn Fein is somehow ‘anti austerity’.
There would be little argument with the author of the article, Stephen Boyd, if that was all he was saying. Sinn Fein and the DUP have been dutifully delivering draconian austerity from Westminster for some time. For a fuller appraisal read here.
Indeed the union leaders’ delusional comments on Sinn Fein’s anti austerity credentials are matched by their own inability to launch an all out struggle against both the attacks of the Northern Executive/Westminster and the Coalition in the south.
But he is completely wrong to suggest that Sinn Fein both now and ‘the sectarian campaign of the Provisional IRA’, which it supported for over thirty years, has been an overwhelmingly sectarian force in northern Irish politics.
The article goes further into the mire. Apparently only the unity of the trade union movement during the ‘Troubles’ has stopped ‘society going over the edge into civil war’. Links between Sinn Fein and the unions it is claimed would ‘result in sectarian divisions opening up with the unions with the possibility of an exodus by tens of thousands of Protestant members’ from the unions and even separate Catholic and Protestant unions.
It is clear that Stephen Boyd, like the party he belongs to, completely misunderstands the nature of the whole period opened up by the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960’s right through to the Peace Deal in 1998. He grossly overstates the ‘sectarianism’ of republicans as much as he wilfully underestimates the existing sectarianism within the trade unions. For a group claiming to be socialist they disgracefully end up denying any progressive content to Irish republicans fighting Britain and its state in the North.
The Socialist Party, in Britain and in Ireland, inherited its politics from the Militant group. Militant used to call for a united Catholic and Protestant trade union defence force in the North ‘to combat sectarianism’. All the actions of republican fighters were condemned as sectarian as were the mobilisations around the Hunger Strikes. Even now the Socialist Party objects to a Newry play park named after the hunger striker Raymond McCreesh who has ‘contributed to division and stoked conflict’ rather than those who have ‘struggled for workers’ rights and against sectarianism’.
The root of the Socialist Party’s errors lie in their accommodation to the British state. They and their Militant predecessors failed to see the progressive potential in the mass anti Unionist revolt that opened up in 1968. That revolt was fuelled by widespread and systematic discrimination against the Catholic minority. For Militant it was criticised for being sectarian. Instead of joining the revolt and raising all class demands alongside of the democratic demands they abstractly declared for unity with Protestant workers.
The Socialist Party do not understand the nature of sectarianism. It is not a matter of both communities having an equally bad dose of it. The six county state backed up by a long history of British divide and rule is the source of sectarianism. Protestant workers were relatively privileged as a result of discrimination. A supremacist ideology accompanied this, still expressed in the ‘need’ for Orange marches to enter Catholic areas.
The creation of the sectarian northern state in 1921 was on the back of a defeat for the republican forces in their national revolution against the British in Ireland as a whole. The state that followed was founded on systematic social discrimination of a minority on the basis of their nationality. Not so much for their Catholicism as their identification with Irish nationalism.
So when a mass struggle opened up against the discrimination in the late 60’s, it inevitably drew most of its support from the oppressed side of the community and found itself in confrontation with an unsympathetic state. Indeed it became obvious to many that the sectarian discrimination was inexorably linked to national oppression and British occupation, and the struggle inevitably passed over into a national revolt against the British.
Whatever the criticisms of the Provo campaign, the main thrust was not sectarian. It was primarily directed at driving out the British. The Provos were not out to get Protestants. Unlike the loyalist paramilitaries whose sole target was Catholics. Initially their pogroms of Catholic areas played a large part in the growth of the IRA as a defence force. Sectarianism by its very definition is not equal in the north, it stems from a deeply sectarian state.
So when the Socialist Party call for unity of the working class it begs the question why are they not united in the first place. It becomes an abstract clamour when they are suggesting unity can be forged with Protestant workers who have not broken from their support for an oppressor regime. When Catholics were defending their homes and areas in 1969 from loyalist pogroms and many times since, they would have been not a little bemused at Militant’s call for the removal of barricades and a Protestant/Catholic trade union defence force!
Unifed Trade Unions?
The Socialist Party bizarrely tell us that the unity of the trade union movement stopped a civil war. But did the trade unions spring to the defence of Catholic areas that came under sustained loyalist attack in 1969? No. Where were the unions in fighting the widespread discrimination in jobs, housing, gerrymandering, etc? The answer is nowhere to be seen. The trade union and labour movement in the north, no doubt reflecting the predominance of Protestants who had more jobs, were dominated by the most open collaborators with British imperialism and Unionism.
The trade unions made no attempt to build a campaign against discrimination of Catholics. Irish Militant at the time adapted their politics to this, in effect adapting to the pro Unionist agenda of the trade union officials. Revolutionary socialists should have joined all the struggles erupting against the reactionary Unionist state, they should have sought to deepen the struggle by posing all class demands – more jobs for all, decent housing for all, etc. Instead of Militant’s abstract posturing from the sidelines.
Yet again the failure of the trade union movement was there for all to see during the sectarian Ulster Workers Strike 1974. They were unable to stop widespread UDA paramilitary intimidation and their appeals to return to work fell on deaf ears. No progressive unity here when it mattered.
The ‘unity’ of Catholic and Protestant workers in the unions is one based on a tacit agreement to ignore discrimination and most certainly the national question. Does this make the union leaders stronger when it comes to economic issues? No. They have acquiesced to all the austerity attacks to ensure the peace process is not harmed. The peace process is of course the guarantor of the Union and the bureaucrats have no problem with that.
The latest tranche of devastating cuts has forced a limited ‘turn’ to action by union leaders but yet that too is justified as no threat to the peace process. Clearly an all out battle with the British state and its Stormont Executive over austerity would fill the union leaders with dread. It would test the peace process and would also have the potential to spread disillusionment with Britain’s role amongst pro Union Protestant workers.
The Socialist Party fear the growing rapport between Sinn Fein and the unions will create sectarian tension and possible separation of unions. Why? Because Sinn Fein ‘openly campaign for the interests of only one community’. Such a loose definition of sectarianism is designed to equate Republicanism/Nationalism with Unionism. It fails to see the inbuilt sectarian nature of the Northern state and the resulting discrimination and bigotry that was institutionalised against the Catholics.
Socialists should certainly fear a Sinn Fein/trade union lash up but on the basis of Sinn Fein hypocrisy in talking anti austerity but implementing it. This suits the union leaders’ lack of ambition in defeating austerity. They should both be opposed by Protestant and Catholic rank and file workers intent on a serious struggle to defeat austerity by way of indefinite mass strikes.
But to suggest it is Sinn Fein’s ‘sectarianism’ which is the main problem is deliberately courting the reactionary fears of Protestant workers regarding Sinn Fein’s ‘republicanism’. Socialists should be in the business of dispelling reactionary ideas not stirring them up. It is Sinn Fein’s complicity in anti working class policies that should be nailed.
Sectarianism has already shaped the trade union and labour movement in the north, no fault of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein have certainly made their peace with the sectarian state, they have colluded in the sectarian carve up that is the Assembly and have imposed austerity as the price of peace. But they are different to Unionist parties because they claim to represent an oppressed community in the north that has been the victim of discrimination and state repression.
Sinn Fein represent the view of many Catholics that a united Irish Republic of all creeds is necessary. This is not a sectarian position. In that sense they cannot be equated with sectarian Unionism which has a rich history of excluding Catholics. The accusation makes even less sense given their national profile and growth in the south.
The potential for separate unions does exist in the north and it would gleefully be fomented by the ruling class faced with a unified working class fighting austerity. But Sinn Fein’s links with the unions is not the main problem facing Protestant workers, their historic alliance with Unionism is.
It is this all class alliance that ties these workers to capitalism and imperialism. Joint economic struggle by itself will not break them from loyalism. If trade unions are going to be ‘political’ as the Socialist Party suggest then why have they not politically campaigned against Catholic/Republican oppression and repression? In truth the unions are political, it’s just that they work to a pro Union agenda.
A new workers’ party
We do desperately need an ‘anti sectarian working class party’ but it needs to be armed with an action programme for establishing a Workers’ Republic in Ireland. That programme cannot ignore the democratic aspirations of the Catholic minority for equality or for the completion of the national struggle. But we need the working class to take centre stage in that struggle based on working class action.
The Socialist Party can ignore the role of British imperialism and its state apparatus at their peril. Any serious challenge to austerity from workers will bring forth British repression like that meted out to republicans. Socialists must have a strategy that can promote the largest anti sectarian mobilisation against austerity in the north combined with a struggle against the sectarian prison house that is ‘Northern Ireland’.
Workers Power believes all those seeking a revolutionary answer to the crisis in Ireland north and south should collaborate in the building of such a party. A new anti capitalist and anti imperialist party which seeks to develop a new fighting leadership in the anti austerity struggles north and south is long overdue.
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