In early July, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) meets in Ennis. This biennial event brings together delegates of unions based in the South, those based in the North and those which organise across these islands. For all the shortcomings of this event – dominated by full-time officials and with discussions which are often irrelevant to most workers – it represents the hard-won and precious unity of the working class movement in Ireland. This unity is of vital importance – literally a matter of life and death. During the dark years of the Troubles, the unions were the only mass organisations which united working class people, and which stood in the way of even worse bloodshed. This unity should not be taken for granted.
Over the years, the idea that parties which are based on sectarian division, and which deliberately accentuate division, are somehow friends of the unions has been aired. The DUP has always cultivated working class support – Sammy Wilson, outspoken today in his arguments in favour of austerity, was once known as “Red Sammy”. The UUP has long had a wing which claims the mantle of “labour unionism”. Now, John Douglas, the out-going President of ICTU, has raised the possibility of the unions developing links with Sinn Fein.
For the union leaders to move towards a link, formally or informally, with any sectarian party risks splitting the trade union movement. We have been here before. In 1945, a number of Southern-based unions split away from the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) and formed the Congress of Irish Unions (CIU). It was 1959 before the two organisations came together to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). Not all Irish-based unions joined the CIU – eleven did but eight stayed with the ITUC. All the unions with headquarters in Britain stayed with the ITUC.
The causes of the split were complex. In 1941, the Fianna Fail government proposed a trade union bill which insisted the unions had an Irish office. Some union officials were close to Fianna Fail and fomented opposition to “British” unions. There was a left/right aspect to the split – the ITUC unions were generally to the left of the CIU – but essentially it was a split based on nationalism. The turmoil of the period saw not just a split in the union movement but also splits in the union-linked Labour Parties, North and South.
The exact causes of the split are less important now than the simple fact that it happened and that its basis was fundamentally down to divisions on the national question. History does sometimes repeat itself, but not in exact detail. If our movement were to split again, it would represent a cataclysmic defeat. All working class people in Ireland, North and South, would pay the price for many years, even decades. Thinking trade unionists must make it clear where they stand now. The unions must be entirely independent of sectarian, pro-austerity and anti-working class parties. And the fight must begin now to create new parties, North and South, which genuinely represent the interest of working class people.