The Blanket

Is Class Politics a Possibility?

Billy Mitchell

Will the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement facilitate the development of class politics? That was the question being asked by many community activists in the weeks following the signing of the Agreement. It is a question that was also on the lips of a number of trade unionists and political activists from both traditional communities who are working within the community sector. For many who live or work within those marginalised communities of Greater Belfast that are suffering under the grinding wheels of structural inequality and social injustice, the political realignment that would facilitate class politics was of crucial importance.

That political realignment has not happened. That is not to say that there has not been a realignment of sorts. Clearly the political parties represented on the Northern Ireland Executive that proposed and endorsed the Programme for Government and the Budget put forward by the Minister for Finance have reached some measure of social and economic realignment. Sadly, it is a realignment that reinforces social division and the continued marginalisation of the disadvantaged and deprived.

The Agreement, or at least the political debate and dialogue that has stemmed from it, has encouraged many of us to look afresh at how we do politics. If we interpret class politics as the politics of participative democracy where the powerless and the disadvantaged work together to achieve positive social outcomes for their communities, we could say that the process has already begun. If we interpret class politics as socialism versus liberalism and capitalism within the process of representative democracy, then we haven’t even begun to create the necessary conditions for that type of political action. Representative democracy remains caught up in the tangled skein of constitutional politics and cultural division, and it appears that the mainstream Unionist and Nationalist parties have adopted a “Labour can wait” policy; or to be more blunt, a “Labour can eff-off policy.

A number of political representatives and their party activists who represent marginalised communities are already working together within and across the constitutional interface on class issues. They may be diametrically opposed to each other culturally and constitutionally, but they are able to work together constructively to help enrich and enhance the lives of their respective constituents. There is a healthy measure of realism in such co-operation, and we need to welcome it and to encourage more of it. Such co-operation reminds us that we live in the presence of one another and that we are of the same social and economic class facing similar social and economic problems. Human solidarity is such that we all suffer together and that, consequently, we must respond to that suffering together.

The potential for the development of class politics that is being cradled within a number of loyalist and nationalist communities should be validated and supported by socialist groupings. Some have been very supportive while others have put out a tentative hand of friendship. Sadly there are too many elitist socialists who refuse to believe that anything good can come out of the loyalist community and are dismissive of the work of loyalist political and community activists.

This elitism does nothing to help the long-suffering people of the New Lodge, Tigers Bay, Mount Vernon, Whitewell, Ardoyne or Ballysillan. The welfare of our communities must take precedence over theoretical positions. We will never be able to dot every “i” or cross every “t” in each other’s socialist theory or political programme. This is a fact of life and we will have to acknowledge that fact and learn to live with it. We ought to be mature enough to respect each other’s positions and to validate the positive outcomes of each other’s programmes.

If we are to genuinely develop a political process that will lead to the establishment of a just, equitable and anti-sectarian society we must stop attacking each other. None of us are above criticism and constructive criticism must always be welcomed. But if we are going to change the face of society we need also to look for the good that is in each other’s work and, where we find it, to validate it. In short, we need to engage in the politics of encouragement and mutual support. We can all benefit from each other’s learning and from each other’s experiences

Some socialists have a tendency to lecture nationalists and unionists for daring to be what they are - unionists and nationalists. But nationalism and unionism are facts of life. The vast majority of people in Belfast place a great deal of emphasis on their Irishness or their Britishness, depending on what community they belong to. That is what the conflict has been all about and it is unrealistic to ask people to water down or to give up what they hold dear. It is true that in the past working class unity has floundered on the hard rock of constitutional and cultural differences. But we have moved a long way since then and, if we can genuinely leave the constitutional issue firmly with the people to be decided by referenda, both communities can work together in areas of mutual interest.

The principle of consent together with legislation to allow for constitutional referenda ought to free political parties to concentrate on social and economic issues. Community workers and political activists from both the nationalist and loyalist communities have proven that they can work together constructively on class issues. Indeed the stronger these activists are in their own cultural identity and the more they draw upon their own experiences of deprivation and disadvantage, the better they are at working confidently with those from the other community. Political activism at community level is not based on theory; it is based on practical experience and is rooted in the community development process. Those who are critical of political activists who cherish their sense of either Irishness or Britishness ought to come alongside us and see just how well we can work together in achieving positive outcomes for our communities.

If we are to move forward towards a process of genuine class politics we need to consolidate the embryonic partnership that exists between political activists, community activists and some trade unionists. The community sector has held the community infrastructure in Belfast together during the course of the conflict. It has been community activists rather than the political left that has worked tirelessly to combat poverty, powerlessness, inequality and social exclusion within the marginalised communities. Any political process that ignores the contribution of the community sector will undermine the efforts of those who have the interests of working class communities at heart.

The coming together of political activists and community activists within both loyalist and nationalist communities is a welcome sign that some of the political parties are supportive of the community sector. Likewise, the enthusiastic involvement of community activists and trade unionists in helping to unionise the community sector has been encouraging. The political, community and trade union partnership can provide marginalised communities with a threefold cord that will not be easily broken.

The emergence of class politics is possible. We all need to work to make it happen.




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To accomplish great things,
we must not only act,
but also dream;
not only plan,
but also believe.
- Anatole France


4 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Is Class Politics a Possibility?

Billy Mitchell


What Values Drive Irish Republicanism Today?
Paul Fitzsimmons

Ministers of Silly Words

Anthony McIntyre

Has the Peace Process Delivered?
Davy Carlin


30 June 2002


Remembering the Future

Ciarán Irvine


Behind the Scenes at the World Cup
Billy Mitchell

Conformity - A Disease

Anthony McIntyre

Aldergrove Solidarity
Davy Carlin




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