As a life-long socialist and a member of Unite, I was looking forward to taking part in this year’s International Women’s Day March in Belfast because of the huge attacks working class women are facing from the Stormont politicians – both in terms of cuts to public services and attempts to further restrict access to abortion. I think many people felt the same, with hundreds turning up on a Friday afternoon despite awful weather.
Unfortunately, my experience of the march didn’t remain so upbeat. I joined in the march along with a male comrade from the Socialist Party. We both walked along casually, chatting while carrying Party flags. Suddenly, a well-known trade unionist and women’s movement activist stormed towards us and told us to get to the back of the march, waving a placard in our faces! Given that International (Working) Women’s Day was founded by socialists and it is an entirely political event, we refused and kept walking. Ironically, this trade unionist is a member of the ‘Communist’ Party. She left, irate. A few minutes later, another woman claiming to be an organiser angrily approached us, telling me (a woman) to ‘Let the women have their day’ and even threatening to eject us from the march! Again, we ignored the threats. Other marchers looked on bemused.
When we approached City Hall, the well-known trade unionist came to give us a dressing down about political parties ‘hijacking’ International Women’s Day. We were effectively told that the march was the property of the unelected and unaccountable organisers – not of women as a whole – and that political parties were not welcome. As if to mock, Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson of the DUP then took to the stage at the invite of the organisers. Mr Robinson, his party and all the Executive parties are part and parcel of the austerity agenda which is destroying the lives of working class women and their families. The DUP is vehemently opposed to women’s right to choose to have an abortion, one of the key themes of the demonstration. Embarrassed, our friend explained that the Lord Mayor addresses the rally each year – before the cosy reception for the organisers inside City Hall, of course.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. All too often, members of the trade union officialdom try to sideline socialists and their ideas – on demonstrations, in meetings and in the movement as a whole. This is damaging to the fight for workers’ and women’s rights. Political ideas are central to these struggles. Trade unions and the women’s movement should be encouraging political debate on how we build an alternative to the capitalist system – which has nothing to offer working class women but poverty, misery and exploitation. The Socialist Party will not shy away from this task.