After last week’s protest in Omagh – building a movement against sectarianism

Last Saturday (25th March 2023), 1000 people gathered in Omagh following a call from Omagh Trade Union Council. The call by trade unionists was made because earlier that week dissident republican paramilitaries had shot and critically injured an off-duty police officer outside a sports complex which at the time was attended by many young people. The vast majority of those in attendance were working-class people of all backgrounds, from Omagh and the surrounding areas. A “solidarity march” was also held by a local sports club, attracting several hundred people of all ages.

Last Saturday (25th March 2023), 1000 people gathered in Omagh following a call from Omagh Trade Union Council. The call by trade unionists was made because earlier that week dissident republican paramilitaries had shot and critically injured an off-duty police officer outside a sports complex which at the time was attended by many young people. The vast majority of those in attendance were working-class people of all backgrounds, from Omagh and the surrounding areas. A “solidarity march” was also held by a local sports club, attracting several hundred people of all ages.

“No going back” was the main message of the Omagh protest as speakers from different trade unions stressed that there could be no return to the violence which was such a standard feature of life across the North. It encapsulates a sense that is widespread among working-class people in both communities: that there should be no return to the Troubles. Paramilitaries – be it dissident republicans intent on sparking a reaction from the state or other paramilitary forces, or loyalist paramilitaries threatening to “wreck the place” as the UVF did in relation to the NI protocol negotiations – have nothing to offer working-class people. Their tactics only risk inflaming an already tense situation. The main sentiment reflected in the call for the protest and from the speeches was to stand up against the threat of a slide back to more widespread sectarian violence. 

The majority of people who attended the protest lived through the Troubles and likely had attended similar protests for example after the killing by dissident republicans of Ronan Kerr, a PSNI officer in 2011. A sense that we have to stand against paramilitary violence again now was prevalent. This reflects the experience of working-class people of moments when protests and mobilisations prevented further escalation of sectarian violence. This occurred for example in 1976 when trade unionists called several strikes and protests through the trades councils in Newry, Derry and Craigavon following the killings of six Catholics by Loyalists in South Armagh and the Kingsmill shooting of 10 Protestant workers by the IRA. Again trade unions called a significant protest in 1996 when the IRA broke its ceasefire with the Canary Wharf bombing in London. This history now needs to be brought out also to show that we can push paramilitaries back. This struggle is one that young people must also get involved in. This shooting in front of young people and the recent UVF threat that “Northern Ireland will burn” if the NI Protocol is not removed are a dire warning to all of us. Young people who have been pushed into political activity by the other realities of capitalist exploitation and oppression including low pay, transphobia and gender-based violence must also see the struggle against paramilitary violence and sectarianism as our fight: because they are connected as we discuss below but also because sectarianism is a tool that can be used by those in power to cut across movements for social change.

How can paramilitary violence be challenged?

It can also seem, particularly in some areas across Northern Ireland, that the paramilitaries are an  unalterable part of life. They are again and again linked to coercion and violent control of “their own communities”, for example through loan sharking, extortion of protection money, drug dealing and as a tool in domestic abuse, they are still often seen as a force that cannot be challenged. Furthermore, they benefit from disillusionment and alienation that young people feel, particularly in light of the economic crisis and the lack of materialisation of the “peace dividend” which was supposed to lift living standards of working-class communities across the North. Tensions, which were already high, have been further amplified in recent weeks.

Challenging the dead-end of sectarianism and paramilitary violence requires the conscious building of an alternative that can actually unite people. It means bringing people together in workplaces, schools and communities to fight together to challenge the very conditions that allow paramilitaries to not only cling to their position but to grow. This means fighting against low pay, for well funded and run public services and a society based on mutual respect. That the main parties here are incapable and unwilling to constitute such a political voice is evident; they themselves rely on ongoing sectarian divisions to ensure their voter bases. Instead, there needs to be a new political initiative taken to challenge the sectarian status quo and to build a working-class alternative. The union movement has a crucial role to play and must now seriously consider how it can utilise its 250,000 members to work towards this. If unions made such a call and particularly if they also reached out to young people who have in recent months and years been active on issues including racism, transphobia and gender violence, a powerful force could be built that would be able to fight for the interests of working-class people and thus also challenge the parasitic influence of paramilitaries.

Anti-capitalist, united struggle

We need to recognise also that fighting sectarianism and challenging sectarian forces is not disconnected from other struggles that young people and working-class people are involved in. The tried and tested method of divide and rule means that those in power can (and do!) use sectarianism to cut across movements of working-class people. It is therefore also in the interest of the workplace-based struggles for better pay, terms & conditions and services as well as in the interest of the struggles for bodily autonomy, trans rights and in the climate movement to actively challenge sectarianism, because if we don’t it can be used to divide and debilitate these movements. What further unites these struggles is the need for them to be anti-capitalist, because while capitalism exists, the push to divide working-class people will arise again and again. While we are divided we are less able to challenge the status quo and the exploitation that is part and parcel of capitalism.

When it comes to the conflicting national aspirations held by people here, capitalism has nothing to offer that can actually overcome this contradiction. A discussion about resolving this conflict must involve how we can change the overall conditions which are part of capitalism and that mean coercion and denial of rights. On the basis of a struggle for a socialist alternative, which will by necessity involve a united struggle, based on active solidarity, those conditions can indeed be challenged and fundamentally altered to overcome this conflict.

Next steps

Building this struggle means getting organised and getting active – we have no time to waste. 

Let’s make sure that:

  • Workplace disputes for better pay, terms and conditions and in defence of services are strong and well planned and coordinated to make sure they maximise their ability to unite workers; 
  • That the leadership of the trade union movement act to unite working-class people and consciously challenge sectarianism and the sectarian parties that seek to divide us;
  • We build strong and active movements of solidarity to fight against transphobia, homophobia, racism and misogyny – all tools being used to try to divide us. The first step to this is to make sure International Women’s Day this year is a day of struggle & protest (see ROSA, the socialist feminist movement’s plans for IWD here & get involved!)
  • Finally, and importantly, if you would like to discuss with us about building an anti-sectarian campaign that seeks to unite workers and young people of all backgrounds and to bring together all the strands of our struggle, get in touch with us today!

Side box:

Neil Moore, a Socialist Party activist, spoke at the protest on behalf of Unite, the Union. He said: “I was born in the year of the ceasefire. And it angers me that I have to ask this question but why is it that I am standing here 29 years later on the streets of Omagh in the face of this brutal attack that was despicable carried out in front of young people? I shouldn’t have to be standing here speaking to you today. Once again our community, the community in Omagh has been left with more trauma. Public spaces such as leisure and sports centres are meant to be safe spaces for young people and others. Not the scene of a shooting, not 25 years after the GFA. It is clear to me and it’s clear to many young people that unfortunately paramilitarism and sectarianism has not gone away.” Watch his full speech here.

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