The Red Plough
Vol. 2-No 5
The Politics of Symbols
The Protestant Working Class
On Wednesday 30th November PublicService Unions went out on strike because of the policy of the Tory/Liberal Democrats coaliaition Governments on pensions.
Contributions are to rise by an average of 3.2 per cent of salary over three years, saving the state £3.2 billion
The retirement age to be pegged to the state pension age, while all will be expected to work longer – the retirement age will rise to 67 from 2026.
A switch in the way pensions are uprated every year from the higher RPI rate of inflation to the lower CPI rate,
Staff moved from final salary schemes to career average schemes.
These policies are from a Government determined to effect a sharp reduction in public service pensions. They are similar to the cuts imposed on workers in the Irish Republic and are part of a European wide offensive on the pension rights of workers. A writer in the USA who has written extensively on USA Imperialism, Michael Parenti, has stated that
“USA reactionary rulers (goal) is the Third Worldization of the entire world including Europe and North America”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of a fall of 3 per cent in average incomes this year, with more to come in 2012, and the brunt of cutbacks falling on lower income families. Families with children are likely to be worse off in 2016 than they were 12 years ago. Since 2010 low income families in the North of Ireland have faced rising inflation, growing unemployment and the highest energy and childcare costs in the UK according to the Save the Children organisation. There are now an extra 14,000 children in poverty.
In the Irish Republic 40% of all those in poverty are children and that is before the full effects of the Cuts hits either North or South of the Border.
It is agains this background of raising poverty that the public service unions struck. Trade unions organised demonstrations at lunchtime in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Downpatrick, Omagh, Ballymena, Portadown, Magherafelt and Cookstown. Despite the negative slant put on it by the media the strike was a great success and saw the largest mobilisation of workers, as workers, in generations. The tone of the speeches at the rally in front of Belfast City Hall were angry, militant and class conscious.
One could sense that many attending were more conscious of their role in the class struggle than of their perceived nationality. It was clear that we were not all in it together. On the march itself there was much discussion of the issues surrounding the strike. Many pointed out their solidarity with the low paid workers in the private sector and that many low pay jobs in the public sector had been privatised leading to a differentiation in the average pensions between the two sectors.
There was also much amusement at the sight of Provisional Sinn Fein banners on the March. In October but only known at the end of November the Northern Ireland Executive voted to implement a pensions levy on every civil and public servant in the pension scheme. Only the SDLP voted against it. PSF are on that Executive. They are part of the administration in Stormont. They implement the cuts policy of the British Government. On this issue they face two different ways at once. Eamon McCann once pointed out that having examined the proposals of the parties to the Economic Sub-Group of the Hain Assembly's Preparation for Government Committee in 2006 he concluded that the SDLP were to the left of all the other parties.
“Neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin mentions the existence of trade unions.”(http://www.nuzhound.com/articles/arts2006 sep14_economic_policies__EMcCann_BelfastTelegraph.php)
Indeed McCann says some of the proposals of PSF
“could fit comfortably into a policy statement from the Confederation of British Industry or an election appeal by Michael McDowell on behalf of the Progressive Democrats”(ibid)
Sinn Fein’s membership who retain any vestiges of radicalism, may well be fobbed of by the argument that they are fighting the British Government for changes. But somewhere down the line the penny will drop (as it did for many around the issues of the GFA) that they are being sold a pup.
Since the leadership of Provisional Sinn Fein began the process of turning their organisation into a bourgeois nationalist party they have shed much of their republicanism leading to the formations of Republican Sinn Fein, the 32County Sovereignty Movement, Eirigi and the Republican Network for Unity. It is safe to say that Irish Republicanism has never been more divided nor weaker in the past fifty years.
But rather than learn from the mistakes of the past there are still some who persist with the failed policies that has brought republicanism into a cul de sac. Neither armed struggle nor administrating Capitalist rule will bring radical change to Ireland never mind introduce socialism.
That is why it was gratifying to see republican socialists actively participating in the march and the struggles around workers rights. For years many Republicans stayed away from involvement in trade unions because of their perception of the leadership of the unions as pro-British. They did not see the connections between Imperialist control and day to day capitalist rule. They forgot the examples of James Connelly and Seamus Costello who brought into the cold light of day the connections. No simple green flag atop of buildings would free the workers. It is the class struggle that will solve the national question not the other way around. Thankfully more and more Republicans are coming to see the relevance of the Connolly/Costello approach.
It is long past the time for republican socialists to sit down with each other and over a period of time agreed the strategy and tactics needed to advance the interests of the working class in ireland . Such a move would be difficult and slow. It might need to be private or could be a public forum. But it is needed. At a time of major crisis in capitalism world wide it is a shame that the left sects still play petty politics and refuse to seriously work to build mass organisations of the working class. But it still needs to be done. The power of the class was shown in the one day strike.
Of course one successful day of action by the Unions will not stop the British Government from pursuing their attacks on the working class. They will work on the leadership of some of the public sector Unions to persuade them to break ranks and do a deal that will still worsen the pension conditions of the workers. Minor concessions will be hailed as a victory and a deal forced on reluctant workers. That is why it is essential to fight for democracy at all levels within the Unions. The entrenched bureaucracy of the Unions stand as a barrier to workers unity. The development of a grass roots movement across all unions and sectors of industry and public service is the best defence of workers rights and a spearhead with which to lead opposition to Tory policies in both Britain and Ireland.
The Politics of Symbols
A major row grew up around the issue of the Lord Major of Belfast refusing to hand over a prize certificate to a young girl.(http://irishecho.com/?p=68367)This at a time when the vast majority of people are wondering how they can get through Christmas. The emergence of sectarian politics is not Provisional Sinn Fein’s fault.It is built into the system and existed long before they were even formed in 1969. Loyalist protesters came out on the streets. Prior to this there had been the public sector strike by the trade union movement that by and large Unionist politicians disagreed with and passed pickets lines. Was there protests by their constituents? Unfortunately not. Real economic interests seem to come second place to the politics of symbols.
“Smashing H-Block” by F.Stuart Ross
Published in 2011 this book is a necessary corrective to the perceived provo history of the H-blocks. It details the background to the struggle before the dramatic hunger strikes of 1981 and brings to light the role of the mass struggle and the contributions of hundreds of ordinary folk who lead the protests, marched tot he roads visited the jails and have effectively been written out of history. F.Start Ross has down those noble folk a great service in bringing the for the history of the periods before the hunger strikes.
He deals with the prison protests and the mass struggles of the period up to 1975. There were mass protests in support of the hunger strike started by Bill McKee, OC of the provo prisoners in Crumlin jail. These protests were held in the main by the Northern Resistance Movement a broad front led by People’s Democracy and incorporating Provisional Sinn Fein and the Irish Independence Party. The People’s Democracy were not afraid to criticise the PIRA for their braking of the pledge- “no talks till internment ends” their failure to commit to united fronts and their elitism. They argued that the armed struggle should be subordinate to the mass political struggle as opposed to the provo position of the opposite.
Later under the banner of the Political Hostages Release Committee instigaged by PD and bringing together a wide variety of organisations over 10,000 people were mobilized on the streets. One of the campaigns was for the repatriation of the “Winchester Hostages” who included Marian Price, sadly now once again a political hostage.
The Provos once more killed this broad based committee fearing the leftist influence PD was having on working class supporters of the Provos.
Indeed through out this excellent book there is a continuity in the way the Provos use and abuse mass struggles in pursuit of their narrow elitist and nationalist demands. The development of the prison struggle and the associated street protests is extensively covered including the heroic struggles of the RelativesAction Committees who supported the blanket prisoners during the dark years at the end of the 1970’s. The emergence of the H Block campaign is well covered and shows how initially distrustful of the emerging mass struggle the provos decided to jump on the bandwagon and take over the controls while pretending to be shifting to the left.
This is a book for anyone interested in the development of the Irish struggle. It lays bare the mistakes but also draws out the crucial role of the masses. A t the end of the day those thousands who marched and protested were sold out by a leadership of self promoting elite nationalists .
The Protestant Working Class
(The following was an essay for a night class. It may be interest to some. I have left in all the references.)
The past fifty years have seen a major upheaval in the lives of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland. The so called “Troubles” from 1968 until the late 1990’s had a profound effect on the attitudes, dreams and aspirations of the working classes in the North.
The Catholic working class has seen its position changed radically. From being a minority discriminated against by the State and whose Irishness was derided and denied it now has a share of Government and equality before the law.
The Protestant working classes however have gone from having a secured place in the British Empire under a permanent Unionist Parliament with advantage and privileges over others to now being confused,demoralized and unsure of their place in the world.
The coming together of both liberal and conservative unionists at the end of the 19th century in defence of the Union was a key factor in binding large sections of the protestant working classes behind the Unionist Party. Although the main driving force behind the resistance to Home Rule was in the main industrialists and land owning aristocracy who identified completely with the British Empire1 the leadership of Unionism was always aware of the necessity to keep the “lower classes” on board.
The Protestant working classes themselves were well aware that they occupied a relatively privileged position
“-aware they were not at the bottom of the economic heap. They feared any political change which would give the majority population, the Catholics, a greater influence in running the country and open the minority’s privileges to challenge.”2
The Academic GrahamWalker has argued that the use of the term “privileged” to describe the PWC
“is to apportion blame, to condemn and to put the Protestant Working class in the dock. Language of course is a political weapon and this is a classic case”3
He then goes on to argue the word is more appropriated applied to
“country squires and well heeled suburbanites”
Funnily enough a dictionary defining ‘privilege’ uses words such as ‘right’ ‘advantage’ ‘immunity’ ‘special advantage or benefit’4
In arguing that the PWC perceives itself as part of the British working class and suffering from the same deindustrialisation that they shared with the working class across the water Walker himself has used words as a political weapon to denigrate perceived ‘nationalist writers. (For example ‘promiscuous’ ‘unthinking’ ‘polemical grenade’ ‘aportion blame’ ‘condemn’ dustbin of history)
Vis-a-vis the Catholic working class there is no doubt that the PWC had an advantaged or privileged position.
Work in the shipyards and engineering industries was usually the prerogative of the protestant working class. After all with the largest rope-works the largest shipyard the oldest aircraft manufacturing5 there was relative job security and social cohesion in the working class areas. Industries brought a strong sense of “community and common values”6
So they supported in huge numbers the signing of the Ulster Covenant. However the outbreak of industrial militancy in 1919 saw a three week strike in Belfast of shipyard and engineering workers, traditional unionist supporters
Fearing the spread of “Bolshevik” ideas, Carson the leader of Unionism and President of the British Empire Union encouraged the formation of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association.7Later on the establishment of the ‘B Specials’ helped further consolidate the the working class within the broad church of Unionism.
With the establishment of the one party rule in Stormont the protestant working class were, in the main, reasonably content. Elections were fought on the constitutional issue and proved no threat to their position. Occasionally outbursts of discontent found expression in support for independents or labour candidates committed to the Union. However when there were tentative signs of solidarity between catholic and protestant workers the forces of sectarianism would be unleashed and catholics would be expelled fro their work places.
The network of gospel halls, churches of differing denominations and the predominance of the loyal institutions in the social and culture life meant that there was steady stream of anti-catholic rhetoric on tap when necessary.
Those protestant workers who stood up for their fellow catholic workers were deemed as ‘rotten prods”8 and many protestant trade unionists were driven out of heavy industry for siding with fellow workers. There was no room for dissent within protestant ranks -“-the politics of social reform being tantamount to national treachery”(ibid)
At the beginning of the 20th century Unionists saw themselves as having an identity that was
“-Parochial - I am Provincial-- I am National in that I am an Irishman and proud of it --I am Imperial ---‘Civis Britannicus sum’---” 9
While they described themselves as British and honoured the British Crown it is illuminating that, in the 3rd of the TV series, broadcast in the early 1980’s, on the protestant working class, The Billy trilogy10 of plays by Graham Reid, one of the children refers to herself as “Irish” to distinguish herself from the English despite after at least 10 years of serious conflict then.
The older child responds by instead claiming to be ‘protestant’ showing the confusing issue of identity.
Within that play are elements of a nostalgic look back to the pre-troubled days when working class protestants took pride in their streets and community, looked after their families worked hard and were ‘loyal’. Education was not heavily valued, also evidenced in the Billy Trilogy discussion of homework. Apprenticeships would guarantee work in heavy industry. In essence the nostalgic view of protestant way of life before the ‘troubles well summed up in the poetry of Gerald Dawe
“A woman dusts the living room
The Queen on horseback
smiles down upon tongues
of sprouting ivy. Everything
is right with the world
even the kerbstones are painted”11
The main view of the Northern State held by protestants seem to have been that it “was a grand wee place” an expression must used in the aftermath of the onset of the ‘troubles’.
So the emergence of the of the Civil Rights Movement was a great shock to the whole of the Unionist population. First there was denial, then resistance, years of conflict and eventually a coming to terms with the inevitabIlity of sharing space and power with the minority population.
Politically they lost their parliament,the BSpecials were disbanded, Derry Corporation was dissolved local Government was reformed. As a consequence of intra- communal violence there were major shifts in populations, the greatest since the 2nd World War in Europe.This led to a lack of social cohesion and decline in Church attendance. Churches sometimes were the ‘social glue‘12 that bound communities together.
The decline in attendance at the Macrory Memorial Church13was replicated in a number of other areas creating or rather re-creating a sense of a people under siege. Within this context the portrayal of the tensions within loyalism in “As the Beast Sleeps”14 another BBC play, is as vivid as it is realistic.
The tensions between the two main characters towards political movement or back to war, ie ‘killing taigs’ and the confused sense of loyalties outline the dilemma for loyalism.
Those involved in loyalism saw themselves portrayed negatively, even, as in Mitchell’s case, from within their own community.
“That we are narrow minded. That we are fanatical. -that we hate all Catholics. That we are repressive ‘right wing’ Fascists. That we can not be reasoned with”.15
This was in spite of the fact that main stream politicians were only too happy to share public platforms with their leaders and engage in private discussions with them. Of course this was at a time in the UK when chaos seemed to loom with 3-day weeks, major crisis with oil, unions locked in conflict with the Government and rumors of a coup d’etat. So security forces and politicians were only too happy to associate, at a distance, with those whose hands were dirty.
But there was to be no electoral gains for those with the dirty hands. At least not for loyalists. Unlike republicans who gained political power and electoral success despite, or maybe because of, involvement in armed struggle, loyalists gained little politically or indeed economically from their involvement in their war.
The gains instead went to those who grouped themselves around Ian Paisley.
Paisley had founded his own Free presbyterian Church in the early 1950’s and preached a virulent form of anti-catholicism that touched a rare nerve within working class unionism.
Even though in the late 1950’s and in the sixties there was a swing to the NILP especially in protestant working class districts , the socialist culture
“often co existed with sectarianism and with an unshakeable suspiciousness about the intentions of the Nationalists minority and was thus vulnerable to Paisleyite populism”16
At the same time the so called liberal wing of unionism under the modernising Terence O’Neill had re-organised the Ulster Unionist Labour Association and sought to win back the working class unionist voters from the NILP. Squeezed between the modernising and reactionary wings of Unionism the NILP was unable to withstand the pressures when the civil rights movement came on the scene.
The demise of the NILP left progressive working class protestants without a real base.Their political options were now severely restricted. Gradually over the years Ian Paisley was able to use the turmoil of the’ Troubles’ to build politically within both urban and rural areas of protestant Ulster exploiting the fears of the protestant people and gradually winning over to his DUP sections of middle class support that once would have scorned Paisleyism.
The DUP over the years transformed itself into a modern political party eventually displacing the old Unionist Party as the main unionist party. But in order to actually exercise power they had to make a deal with Republicans who they had long demonized. The outsiders had come in from the cold. But in so doing they left a confused and alienated PWC.
‘Progressive loyalism’ also lost out. Attempts to put a political face on loyalism had first begun in the early seventies when Gusty Spence, a founder member of the modern UVF, began to ask loyalist prisoners
“Why are you here” in an attempt to get them to see the bigger political picture.
But efforts in the early 1970’s to graft on a political party, the Volunteer Political Party onto a military machine, the UVF was doomed to fail. Both the security situation, the para military connections and the relative inexperience of its political activists meant there was little support in the electorate.
Furthermore there was a tradition of support for the security forces within the broader unionist tradition and unlike within the nationalist community, ex-political prisoners were regarded with disdain and to kept at a distance unless in times of crisis. There was also the alternative of the DUP for those Unionists disillusioned with the Ulster Unionist Party.The UUP itself had veered from modernising to reactionary position during the conflict and in so dong gradually lost its position of pre-eminence within Unionism
The “peace process” changed the whole dynamics of the situation. Negotiation meant that all sides to the conflict had to have some input. There emerged from within loyalism a number of key personnel, like David Ervine, who managed to give loyalism, for a time, a progressive even radical edge using the Progressive Unionist Party as the vehicle. The PUP even adopted the Clause 4 of the old Labour Party constitution, dropped by the New Labour supporters.
Further more, the coming together of ex-political prisoner groups from both republican and loyalist backgrounds opened up new areas of co-operation and understanding. But it has also exposed the fractures within Unionism especially between loyalism and the DUP as the following quote from a member of the Ulster Political Research Group ( a group close to the thinking of the UDA leadership)
“If the DUP lead a devolved government they will attempt to disempower us by controlling whatever funding will be coming into our communities. Unionist politicians are more interested in gaining political benefits than in empowering communities.”17
In those sentences we can see how some sections of Loyalism identified with their local communities before the broader strands of Unionism.
But the loyalists themselves have had major disagreements leading to bloodshed between the UDA and the UVF but also internally. Feuding usually entails working class communities bearing the brunt of the violence leading to disillusionment and demoralization. Whatever credibility is gained within Unionism by militancy on issues such as marching or interface conflict is lost by the feuding and criminality that was associated with both paramilitary wings of loyalism. Electorally the PUP vote has declined and they no longer have any representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The UDA ‘s own efforts to enter the political field also came to disaster. It is clear indeed that many of the members of the loyalist paramilitaries use their votes to support the DUP.
From a once secure role in the world, politically culturally, socially and economically the protestant working class now finds itself insecure. Their sense of place has been weakened. The social glue that held their communities together has gone. They are alienated and almost leadership. Mark Langhammer, talking about protestant working class areas in Belfast said in every street they
“-would have had a convenor, or shop stewart, or health or safety representative as a result of mass participation in the great unionised manufacturing enterprises of shipyard, aircraft, engineering and textiles”18
That is all gone. The political leaderships of the mainstream unionist parties did not prepare the masses for the compromises they would have have to take. Hence the confusion within their ranks. Like the Catholic working class they too face a dilemma, reaction or progress?
1 Page 45 “Against Home Rule “ the case for the Union By Sir Edward Carson etc Pub Frederick Warne London 1912
2 Page 22 “The Protestants of Ulster “ Geoffrey Bell Pub. Pluto Press 1976
3 Page 366 “Irish Protestant Identities” Ed.Busteed, Neal Tonge 2008 Manchester University Press
4 Page 953 “Concise Oxford Dictionary” University Press Oxford 1961
5 ‘Life before the troubles” interview with Michael Copeland-lecture 26/10/11
6 Page 3 Lecture 26/10/11
7 Page 47 “ The State In Northern Ireland 1921-72”Bew, Gibbon, Patterson Pub.Manchester University Press 1979
8 Page xiv “labour and Partition” Austen Morgan 1991 Pluto Press
9 Page 258 “Irish Protestant Identities” Ed.Busteed, Neal Tonge 2008 Manchester University Press
10 “A Coming To Terms For Billy” BBCNI 1984
11 Page 2” Little Palaces” Gerald Dawe-lecture 26/10/11
12 Page 8 Lecture 26/10/11
13 Page 8 Lecture 26/10/11
14 “As the Beast Sleeps” BBC NI Play written by Gary Mitchell
15 page 280 ‘Political Murder in Northern Ireland “ Dillon, M. and Lehane, D Pub. Middlesex:Penguin 1973
16 page 159 History of the Ulster UnionisT Party “ Walker. G Manchester University Press 2004
17 page 11 “Learning From Others In Conflict” Loyalism in Transition”Island Pamphlets 80 -2007
18 Page 370 “Irish Protestant Identities” Ed.Busteed, Neal Tonge 2008 Manchester University Press
“Belfast Fifty Years Ago” Lecture by Thomas Gaffikin Pub. James Cleeland Belfast 1894
“Northern Ireland -The Orange State” Farrell Pub. Pluto Press 1976
Northern Protestants-An Unsettled People” McKay Pub. Blackstaff Press 2000
“Sectarianism-a Discussion Document” Report of the Working Party On Sectarianism -Irish Inter Church Meeting -1993
“The Edge Of the Union” Steve Bruce Pub. Oxford University Press 1994
“The State in Northern Ireland1921-72” Bew, Gibbon Patterson Pub. Manchester University Press 1979
“Unionism and Orangeism In Northern Ireland since 1945” Patterson and Kaufman Pub. Manchester University Press 2007
James Connolly Archive http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly
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