Workers Vanguard No. 866
17 March 2006
Protestants and Catholics Strike Together
Postal Strikes in Northern Ireland
The following article was written by our comrades of the Spartacist Group Ireland, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
A wildcat strike of several hundred Belfast postal workers rocked Northern Ireland in February when Protestant and Catholic members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) walked off the job to protest against constant harassment by Royal Mail management. The strike effectively shut down mail delivery in most of Belfast for over two weeks and crippled mail to and from Northern Ireland. It also provided a powerful illustration of how class struggle can break down the sectarian division between Catholic and Protestant workers. In a defiant show of opposition to sectarianism, striking trade unionists marched from Belfasts Protestant heartland, the Shankill Road, to the Catholic Falls Road on 7 February. Postal workers were immensely proud of this demonstration which was applauded by working-class members of both communities.
In fact the working class is the only class with the social power and objective class interests to transcend the sectarian divide, which serves the capitalist exploiters. Striking workers told Spartacist Ireland that Protestant workers walked off the job at Belfasts Tomb Street depot in disgust at a management lie that a union member was involved in harassment. They were immediately joined by Catholic workers, and the strike soon spread to the main mail office for Northern Ireland at Mallusk. Mallusk, north of Belfast, is in the same area where in January 2002 20-year-old Catholic postman Daniel McColgan was murdered by pro-British Loyalists. At the time, postal workers walked off the job for five days to protest against this heinous murder and against Loyalist threats to kill other Catholics working in Protestant areas.
Postal workers who spoke to Spartacist Ireland supporters were conscious and very proud that they belong to an integrated union and that they understood the need for Protestant and Catholic to stand together to resist the attacks of Royal Mail. Management threatened to take legal action against individual union representatives involved in the strike, demanding that they get people back to work or face being sued for the companys losses. Company intimidation efforts included sending men to hand-deliver letters to union representatives at their homes late at night. Every worker on the picket line had stories of vicious harassment and mistreatment by management, which many workers saw as an attack on the union.
Some strikers linked management harassment to last years Loyalist marching season, when some workers—both Catholic and Protestant—wanted to start and finish their rounds early to avoid the violence that inevitably accompanies Orange Order marches, which are simply a pretext for anti-Catholic violence and intimidation. Management refused, thus forcing all workers to go out during the height of the violence, which last September was the worst in Belfast in years.
As Marxists we seek to bring a proletarian perspective to labor struggles, which means not simply supporting workers unity in struggle, but addressing broader social questions. The starting point for struggle must be a recognition that Northern Ireland is a sectarian statelet based on the subjugation of the Catholic minority and divide-and-rule over the working class. Orange supremacy is violently enforced through the Orange state—the backbone of which is the RUC/PSNI (Royal Ulster Constabulary/Police Service of Northern Ireland) backed up by the British Army—both of which work in tandem with Loyalist death squads in the execution of Catholics.
Marxists stand for the defence of the oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland and fight against all forms of discrimination in jobs, housing and education. At the same time, we oppose Sinn Féins nationalist perspective of a capitalist united Ireland in which Protestants would become an oppressed minority. This prospect only serves to consolidate the Protestants behind Loyalist bigots such as Ian Paisley, laying the basis for communalist terror, and is antithetical to a polarisation along class lines. In this situation of interpenetrated peoples and fratricidal nationalism, there can be no equitable solution short of the destruction of capitalism and the institution of workers rule. A key demand is for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the British Army, a precondition for any just solution. We seek a solution through a proletarian internationalist perspective for the British Isles: for the revolutionary overthrow of British imperialism, the clericalist state in the South, which is hideously oppressive of women, Travellers and workers, and the sectarian Orange state.
Supporters of Spartacist Ireland were welcomed on the picket lines by strikers. A report by one comrade said: The first two guys to come over to greet us set the tone: one Catholic, one Protestant, totally proud of having marched up the Shankill and down the Falls, both delighted to talk to us and fully committed to staying out and fighting. Union official Eoin Davey is a Catholic and self-described Republican; his second-in-command is a Protestant. Davey proudly told us that when the branch leadership decided to provide each striker with a whistle for the march, the only shop that could provide enough whistles was a Loyalist memorabilia shop on the Shankill Road. Despite his fear of even venturing up the Shankill Road, a Catholic striker did so, accompanied by a Protestant union representative. The shop provided hundreds of whistles, but to the strikers dismay, they all had straps bearing Union Jack flags. However, the woman at the counter suggested they could cut the flags off, which they did!
But despite the courage and determination of the strikers, the CWU national leadership left the striking workers isolated through their criminal refusal to support the strike. Both the national and local leadership even repudiated the strike in an effort to avoid reprisals under the anti-union laws. As one striker told Spartacist Ireland, he didnt need to hear that from his union.
There was support for the strike from the union ranks in England, while postal workers in southern Ireland donated £100,000 to the strikers. What was necessary was to spread the strike, not least to Derry and East Belfast. But that would have required a fight against the CWU leadership, who had previously negotiated a sell-out deal to end the wildcat strikes that swept London and the south of England during the winter of 2003-04. Thus they have sabotaged effective resistance to Royal Mails plans to slash the size of the workforce and ultimately to destroy the union (see Hayes & Co. Sabotage Wildcat Victory, Workers Hammer No. 186, Winter 2003-2004).
Displays of class unity by Protestant and Catholic workers are rare in Northern Ireland, but as revolutionaries we know that such opportunities will inevitably arise even in such a deeply segregated society. The postal workers march evoked the memory of the mass demonstrations of Catholic and Protestant workers in Belfast in 1932 in opposition to unemployment. Back then the demonstrators also went to the Falls and Shankill Roads where they were joined by bands from both communities who found that the only non-sectarian tune that the bands could play was Yes, We Have No Bananas! But in the absence of the intervention by a Communist vanguard, instances of class unity on the basis of trade-union struggles will be fleeting, and the sectarian division will reassert itself once the struggle ends.
The most powerful instance of joint class struggle was the 1919 Belfast engineering strike (part of a wave of class struggle that swept Britain and Ireland after the Russian Revolution) in which Charles McKay, a socialist of Catholic background, led mainly Protestant workers to shut down all heavy industry and most of the city. The strike was betrayed by Labourite bureaucrats and smashed by the capitalist rulers. The aftermath of this defeat included a hideous wave of anti-Catholic pogroms the following year in which 9,000 Catholics were driven out of their jobs, as were 3,000 Protestant socialists and trade-union activists. This communalism laid the basis for the partition of Ireland in 1921 by British imperialism. The lesson of these struggles is the necessity for a revolutionary vanguard to intervene to win Catholic and Protestant workers to a proletarian revolutionary perspective that can transcend the sectarian divide, and to the understanding of the need to uproot the capitalist system that gives rise to it.
The imperialist peace deal is premised on Orange supremacy and the continued presence of the British Army. Catholics in working-class areas such as Belfasts Ardoyne or the Short Strand live in a constant state of siege, in constant fear of attack by the army, police and/or Loyalist mobs. Sectarian divisions have deepened to the point where Catholics and Protestants in working-class areas are divided by 30-foot-high steel peace walls. A London Guardian report (24 September 2004) noted that Northern Ireland is more segregated than ever, with a geographical apartheid that many feel is now worse than during the 30 years of the Troubles. It adds that in Belfast 98% of working-class housing is segregated along religious lines. Protestants and Catholics tend to use different bus stops, shops, hospitals and more than 90% of children go to separate schools. In scenes reminiscent of the situation of American blacks prior to the civil rights movement, in 2001 Catholic children attending Holy Cross school were confronted daily by howling Loyalist mobs trying to prevent them from entering the school through the front door or even walking to school on a Protestant road.
Although Protestant workers are only marginally better off than their Catholic counterparts, there is a commonly held view that any improvement in the condition of one community will be at the expense of the other. This points to the need for workers struggles to break out of the framework of capitalist rule.
The postal strike highlighted the need for a class-struggle leadership of the working class in Northern Ireland. A union march on 14 February ended in a rally that was addressed by a host of bourgeois politicians from Sinn Féin and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) as well as the Progressive Unionist Party, a political front for the murderous anti-Catholic UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). The union leadership deferred to these individuals, all of whom represent parties whose role is to maintain the sectarian division and to uphold the capitalist system that foments it.
The Socialist Party (affiliated to Peter Taaffes Committee for a Workers International and to Socialist Alternative in the U.S.) makes occasional claims to stand for working-class politics. But far from class independence, they pander to Loyalist prejudices. One can get a whiff of what they stand for from the statement by Socialist Party TD (member of parliament) Joe Higgins when a Loyalist mob attempted to march in Ireland through Dublin city centre on 25 February under the banner of Love Ulster. This provocation failed because it was met by a determined protest of working-class youth and Republicans, who faced physical attacks by Dublin cops and a barrage of condemnation by capitalist politicians. Higgins stated in the Dáil (Irish parliament): The Socialist Party condemns those who orchestrated Saturdays violence. It was a sectarian riot to prevent the Love Ulster group marching through Dublin (available on socialistparty.net, 1 March). The Socialist Party refuses to call for British troops out of Northern Ireland and is willfully blind to the oppression of Catholics. It has a track record of championing the right of the Orange Order to stage their anti-Catholic provocations. We stand in solidarity with the Dublin protesters who sent these Loyalist thugs home with their tails between their legs. At the same time we give no political support to the Republican nationalists, whose politics reinforce the sectarian division within the working class.
Another organisation active during the postal strikes was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which hailed the decision by Royal Mail to concede a modest but crucial demand: an independent review of employee relations and industrial relations, into which Royal Mail has guaranteed that there will be no interference in the process or outcome (Socialist Worker [Britain], 18 February). Leaving aside the reformist acceptance of guarantees from Royal Mail, Marxists stand for class independence and warn against any reliance on such reviews or inquiries. We argued with workers on the picket lines that it was necessary to rely only on their own power and, crucially, to spread the strike. By promoting the call for an independent review, the SWP helped cover for the union bureaucracy, which was hell-bent on containing the dispute and preventing workers elsewhere going out in solidarity.
Although sectarian hostility in Northern Ireland can often seem intractable, when major instances of integrated working-class struggle do occur, intervention by a communist vanguard will make a decisive difference to the outcome. We are dedicated to building vanguard parties capable of bringing socialist consciousness to the working classes of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and to the fight for an Irish workers republic as part of a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles.