By Michael Cleary
Early January marked the 45th anniversary of some of the most horrific killings of the Troubles. On January 5th 1976, six Catholics-three Reavey brothers and three members of the O’Dowd family – were murdered by the Glenanne gang in south Armagh. The Glenanne gang were a ruthless group of RUC, UDR and UVF members who killed many dozens of people.
One day later, the Provisional IRA retaliated, using the cover name of the South Armagh Republican Action Force. They stopped a workers’ bus on a country road near Kingsmill. They asked all the 12 men on the bus their religion, ordered the only Catholic to walk away, and riddled the others with bullets, killing 10 and leaving the other for dead.
These killings were the culmination of months of sectarian slaughter. Members of the Socialist Party, then organised with others in the Labour and Trade Union Group, had already been raising the call for united workers action to challenge the paramilitaries.
A break came in the situation in December 1975 when the PIRA shot dead two Protestant businessmen who were sitting in a cafe in the centre of Derry. The local Trades Council called a strike and demonstration and 5,000 workers turned out to register their disgust. This set an example to other areas.
After the Reavey/O’Dowd murders and the Kingsmill massacre, Newry Trades Council immediately called a strike which closed most of the factories and workplaces of the town and brought thousands onto the streets. In the Lurgan-Portadown area, where no Trades Council had existed for nearly thirty years, shop stewards from the largest local employer, the Goodyear factory, took the initiative, coming together with other shop stewards to call a strike. Seven thousand workers marched in Lurgan.
Right across the North, the pressure began to mount on the trade union leaders to follow the examples set by Derry, Newry and Lurgan. Had NIC-ICTU – the leadership of the union movement – reacted quickly and called a one-day strike, the response would have been overwhelming. It would have tapped the mood of anger at the killings and also given the working class a sense of their power.
They did not issue such a call but instead they launched a campaign against sectarianism, called the Better Life for All Campaign. Late in January, a call for a two minute silence in memory of all the victims of the Troubles was widely supported as workers across the North stopped work. Unfortunately, NIC-ICTU did little more.
The overwhelming mood for peace was harnessed instead by the Peace People in the summer and autumn of 1976. A series of rallies were held across the North. 20,000 turned out at Belfast’s Ormeau Park, 30,000 on the Shankill, 25,000 in Derry and many thousands more in Antrim, Coleraine, Strabane, Craigavon, Dungannon, Newtownards, Ballynahinch and elsewhere.
The workers movement cannot and should not forget the events of 40 years ago. The role of the Glenanne gang remains to be fully exposed. So too the sectarian actions of the PIRA who carried out the Kingsmill massacre, an act it has denied ever since. And we must learn the most important lesson: it is only the workers’ movement which is capable of really challenging sectarianism.