There is no such thing as non-political trade unionism, every trade union conference debates a wide range of political, economic and social issues affecting its members. From the early days of trade unionism the need for debates of this nature has convinced activists of the need for unions to become political.
NIPSA is no different. The largest union in Northern Ireland is in the frontline of the fight against austerity. In order to defend our members and public services we need to become political. Our conference is debating the creation of a political fund for just this reason. If NIPSA maintains its on-political stance its ability to fight for its members will be held back.
A two thirds vote for a political fund would open the door to a new era for our union. NIPSA will then be able to take a stance on issues currently deemed to be “political” by, for example, launching publicity campaigns which seek to influence public opinion. The ability to do this would be to our members’ benefit but it is not enough on its own.
The main parties in Northern Ireland-the parties which form the Executive- are based in one community only, or are pro-austerity, or both. Such parties cannot represent the interest of NIPSA or any other union.
It is natural that some NIPSA members are anxious that taking a political direction will mean directly or indirectly linking up with one or more of the existing Executive parties. There is in fact a clear alternative to the non-political status quo or to forming links, no matter how distant,with sectarian political parties.
Whether the motion in favour of a political fund is passed or not NIPSA must remain clearly and unambiguously independent of all of the sectarian parties. If the motion is passed we will be able to commence an open, positive and democratic debate within NIPSA regarding the need for a new, mass political party to which NIPSA, as a union, can offer support.
NIPSA and other unions could play a key role in initiating discussion and debate on this issue, alongside community groups, campaign groups and all those who are interested in the idea of a new mass, anti-sectarian left political party. The Socialist Party stands in this tradition-we are in favour of a new mass party and will join in this debate. It goes without saying that the Socialist Party does not claim to be the new mass party of the working class.
The idea of a mass party which trade unionists from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds can support is seen as a utopian dream by many. Just forty years ago it was a living reality however. Between the early 1920’s and the early 1970s there was a party in the North to which a majority of trade unions were affiliated-the Northern Ireland Labour Party (the NILP). The support of the unions provided the NILP with a base in the workplaces and the communities. The link with the NILP provided the nions with a voice on local councils and at Stormont.
The NILP was a limited voice for working people, with many weaknesses, but it had significant support. In 1962, it gained 62,175 votes in Belfast compared to 67,350 for the Unionist candidates. This vote represented 26% of the votes cast. The total left vote in Belfast was 33% if other small left parties are added. The weaknesses of the NILP ultimately lead to its failure of course. The lessons of this failure is not that we should give up on the idea of a united political voice for all working class people in the North, but that we ensure that a future mass party adopts the socialist and anti- sectarian policies which will ensure its success.