Correspondence: Building workers unity
22 July 2008
In a situation where the president of Ireland is personally bankrolling one of the UDA’s leading ‘brigadiers’ and all the major political forces in Irish society have a part to play in securing sectarianism should we not just give up and go home?
Not so. There are a number of factors that revolutionists can seize upon to fight sectarianism. One is that the raving bigots are a tiny minority within society, widely despised by all sections of the working class. The loyalist paramilitary groups almost always get a drubbing at the polls and, when they attempt to set up political parties, they fail to come up with any political programme other than support for the unionist parties and they quickly decay.
That means that any movement that focuses only on the loyalists has a bad aim. The role of the British and of those willing to play along is a much larger target, although the widespread willingness to follow sectarianism guidelines and to accept the sectarian logic of society in the North is an attitude that is hard to shift.
The second thing to bear in mind, very important from a Marxist perspective, is the idea of change. I have already mentioned youth, many of whom are always willing to try and shake off the chains of sectarianism. It is also important to remember that Loyalism has changed historically. It was once the guardian of the sectarian privileges of 50,000 Protestant workers in the shipyard and of sharp sectarian divisions throughout industry. Many of these jobs have gone, not because of the Catholic menace, but because of the movements of a capital which the unionists always defended. After almost four decades of struggle and decline Loyalism is a much weaker force. One has only to tour the streets of Belfast during the 12th. There are plenty of flags, but almost all are on lampposts. In its heyday each house had to hoist a flag – now only the lone fanatics do so. In addition, while discrimination is still very much on the agenda, it has been modified to give the Catholic middle class a greater share of privilege (although not an equal one).
The mechanisms of discrimination today rely more on the rules and regulations set up by the British and on the quangos and committees dominated by the DUP, Official Unionists and the Orangemen than on the paramilitaries. The result is that the Loyalists have grown more and more parasitic on Protestant workers. Their main role now is on keeping Catholics out of areas they consider Protestant. That problem is made more difficult in that there has been as sizable inward migration into the North and it becomes difficult to exclude Catholics from areas that are ethnically diverse – something that feeds the rabid racism that come more or less automatically with Loyalism. The end result is that areas that should be booming – areas like the Village and Sandy Row in South Belfast with their proximity to major hospitals and Queens University and Carrickfergus with its proximity to the Jordanstown campus are actually decaying hellholes dominated by extortion, criminality and drug dealing. The Loyalist rule is so unpleasant that Protestant workers that can flee do so.
Some socialists take this evidence as an indication that Loyalism is fading away and will soon be a thing of the past. Marxists don’t take that view. We view history as a struggle between contending classes and class forces. Things don’t usually fade away unless there is an opposition to finish them off. In this particular case the organic weakness of the Loyalists is compensated for by increased state support, by the sectarianisation of all aspects of Northern society through the St. Andews agreement, by the new support that the nationalists and southern capitalist give to the Loyalists and by the emergence of Sinn Fein as a Catholic party, committed to sharing patronage with the Loyalists and thus to supporting the structures of sectarianism.
From a Marxist point of view social change does not come about as an automatic or mechanical process, but through a struggle involving contradiction. The contradiction in this case involves the disparity between the claims of Loyalism to protect and defend Protestant workers and their reality as members of the Irish working class, a class oppressed and under attack from the Loyalist threat. Loyalists managed to exclude Catholics from many sectors of the workforce, but the price of this was the division of the working class and a unity of Protestant workers with Protestant bosses – a ‘unity’ that left wages and conditions at rock bottom and left Protestant workers manacled to their class enemies. This contradiction was not resolved because the Irish working class was weak and a minority on the island at the time of the war of independence. The working class was not divided by partition, but fragmented and leaderless. Sectarianism was the reality, class politics a dream.
The trade unions and economist socialists tried to resolve the contradiction through ‘bread and butter’ politics – the belief that workers could be united on immediate issues of pay or working conditions and that issues like discrimination, repression and partition could be left to one side. In reality this was just a way on capitulating to Loyalism. What was parked at the door of the workplace were democratic and revolutionary politics, leaving sectarianism and reaction in control of the workforce.
The Irish working class will express itself politically, become a real force, through a working class programme. That programme will not reduce to a narrow concern about pay and conditions that leaves the wider field to politics to the bosses. On the other hand it cannot arise from an all class alliance around democratic demands, as in the republican programme, which constantly argues that labour must wait for republicanism to solve the national question, especially as the movement proves over and over again that that it is not equal to that task.
What this means is that the answer to sectarianism does not lie primarily in the North, because the centre of the Irish working class does not lie there. The road to unity from the Shankill to the Falls, lies through Dublin. The more that the Irish working class asserts itself, the more the contradiction between loyalism and working class identity is thrown into relief, the more the day to day choices between one role and another diverge and come into conflict. This is not some theoretical construct, but something that has expressed itself time and time again. In the 1930’s with the formation of a radical group from the Shankill that marched at Bodenstown (and were attacked by the Catholic right of republicanism). In the 1940’s that radicalism expressed itself with the rise of the Communist Party in the shipyards. In the 1950’s the inner circles of the Unionist party fretted over the possible loss of their working class base to labour. The beginning of the Civil rights period was launched with a student upsurge that was made up equally of dissatisfied Catholic students and Protestant students fed up with the stifling hand of unionism and looking to the socialist movement for inspiration – it was they who were most at risk from the early violence and physical intimidation.
A working class movement establishes itself by acting in its own class interest around the issues that immediately confront it. In the case of the Irish working class that is the dead hand of Irish capital around its throat and that classes’ collaboration with imperialism in the 26 counties to gorge itself in the boom and strangle the workers during the bust. The workers have to immediately defend their own wages and conditions, defend public services that are on the verge of collapse, shake of the dead hand of the union bureaucracy and social partnership and establish their own rank and file structures.
It is within that context that the workers are able to face the shackles that bind them and divide and weaken their movement; British occupation and partition, Orange sectarianism and the power of the Catholic church, a reactionary force all too often overlooked.
Today, in absence of any organised working class movement, such a scenario may seem fanciful, but we have to take into account the failure of any other solution – a failure so complete that the leading radicals of the republican movement are now supporters of the sectarian structures they once abjured. We should also remember that the figures who last attempted to build a revolutionary unity of the working class – Connolly and Larkin – their names echo down the generations while the ‘bread and butter’ crowd and their compatriots in the ‘Labour must wait’ camp will be long forgotten.
The current phase of struggle began with the St. Andrews accord and the elevation of Paisley to Prime minister. However it is not a situation where sectarianism and loyalism are triumphant, but something much more unstable – as evidenced by the fall of Paisley only ten months later. The sectarian forces are weaker than in the past, but are unable to amend their programme of Protestant supremacy. The Paisleyites are not supporting a new settlement, but something they regard as a stopgap measure until they can force Sinn Fein out of government. They are only in government at all due to immense efforts by the British, frantic kow-towing by the Dublin government and the absolute capitulation of Sinn Fein. In addition the economic programme for the refurbished Northern state called for a period of major multinational investment that was always fanciful and has now collapsed with the credit crunch. What is left is a programme of privatisation and an all- out assault on the living standards of workers
It’s not a stable situation, but it won’t automatically shift left. That’s why its so urgent to get the beginnings of a 32-county workers movement on the road.
There’s a lot more detail to be added Mick, but I think I’ll wait until yourself or someone else come back at me