Left unanswered by any independent voice for the working class, the rotten role of the main parties and paramilitaries in whipping up sectarianism has led to a deepening of divisions and a relative strengthening of both dissident republicans on one hand and loyalist paramilitaries on the other.
Recent dissident commemorations have attracted larger numbers than similar Sinn Fein events and amongst a growing layer there is disgust at the ‘Republican Establishment’. This indicates some growth in support for dissidents and pressure on Sinn Fein and the SDLP to take a harder line on contentious issues. At the same time loyalist paramilitaries have reported a growth in their membership over the last year, particularly on the back of the flags protests and the dispute over parades at Ardoyne.
A trade union rep in Belfast commenting on this said “I’ve seen friends who all through the Troubles would never have had any interest in parades or the Orange or any of that, but over the last 18 months some of them have spent practically every night up at the camp at Twaddell Avenue. I find that in the workplace there is a conscious and instinctive effort to keep division at bay but when people return to their communities there really is no voice of reason.”
When the Haass talks failed the initial response of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) was to call for people to support the politicians reaching an ‘accommodation’, this was a bad mistake. Calling for workers to put their faith in sectarian parties to end sectarianism leaves the working class leaderless and opens the door to those who want to drag society backwards.
Had the ICTU called for opposition to sectarian attempts to divide us, had they laid the blame where it belongs and linked this to a serious fight against poverty wages and cuts, they would have received a positive response.
When a lead was given in 2011 on the issue of pensions and cuts, workers turned out in their tens of thousands with bus drivers joining in and bringing Belfast city to a halt. Equally on countless occasions in the past when faced with physical threats or attacks, the working class mobilised in their unions and took action, effectively isolating those carrying out atrocities.
In 1974, workers in Abbey Meats – a factory in North Belfast – were left terrified when two teenage workers were murdered by the UFF as they arrived for work. A year later though when another workmate was shot they took action and stayed out for a month until all paramilitary threats were lifted. From the mid 80’s onwards members of the Socialist Party’s predecessor – ‘Militant’ – were instrumental in mobilising workers in response to sectarian threats and murders. In 1986, 5,000 NIPSA members took action following loyalist threats to workers at the Holywood Road DHSS office. Similarly in 1989 when the INLA threatened DHSS workers in Derry they walked out the door.
In March 1989, when socialists in the Mid-Ulster Trades Council called for strike action against the murder of three Protestants by the IRA, workers from the Unipork factory and others responded in their hundreds. When Maurice O’Kane, a Catholic welder, was murdered by the UVF in Harland and Wolff in 1994, shop stewards immediately called thousands of workers out and left the shipyard empty. The shop stewards themselves faced serious threats for this but didn’t buckle. Instead they followed up this action by turning out en-masse to the funeral in an effort to stare down the killers.
The working class has bravely and consistently resisted being dragged into sectarian conflict but the absence of a strong independent voice and a lack of action in the unions create a vacuum for other forces. In this context, the problems facing the working class as a whole such as a lack of decent affordable housing, educational disadvantage and unemployment become re-framed as problems facing Catholics and problems facing Protestants.
A united struggle by the Catholic and Protestant working class against austerity and Stormonts cuts would act as the most effective force against sectarianism. A movement of this character would dwarf the reactionaries on both sides and could act as a precursor to the establishment of a new mass party of the working class.