The Blanket

Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?

Billy Mitchell

There is little in Brian Kelly’s article with which I would disagree. While analogies are seldom exact I certainly agree that a number of them can be drawn from the past history of the Southern States of the USA and applied to Northern Ireland. This article is not therefore a rebuttal of Brian’s article, far from it, but the article did provoke some thoughts that I feel need to be expressed in the light of Brian’s desire to see the “dead dogmas of the past” well and truly buried.

My argument in the past has been that it is as wrong for nationalists, especially those who claim to be socialists, as it is for the unionist establishment to write off the vast majority of working class unionists as the Irish equivalent of "poor white trash". In fact in my response to one of Anthony Mc Intyre's articles I made the point that one thing that nationalists and a great many socialists had in common with the unionist establishment was their agreement in dismissing working class unionists as the local equivalent of “poor white trash”.

Brian Kelly rightly points out that the unionist establishment "callously left us abandoned in social and economic terms". Like Lazarus the beggar who picked up the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, we picked up the social and economic crumbs that trickled down from the unionist establishment. Admittedly we picked up a few more crumbs than those that were picked up by our nationalist working class neighbours, but they were crumbs all the same. In Belfast parlance it was a matter of "tuppance ha'penny looking down on tuppance." Of course that same callous abandonment of the working classes was replicated by successive Dublin governments. In the Republic it was a case of nationalists, many of whom had served the revolutionary cause, being abandoned by their fellow nationalists. But that never seems to draw the same criticism from nationalists - after all “labour can wait” until the republican project is complete. Within ten years of his death the principles for which Connolly stood were shelved in a “labour can wait” policy that has lasted for eighty-six years. Jacqueline Dana’s article “Connolly ain’t nothing but a Train Station in Dublin” says it all. Tuppance ha’penny looking down on tuppance” was nothing compared to nationalist affluence looking down on nationalist poverty.

While the vast majority of the unionist working class accepted their lot as part of the price they thought they had to pay for maintaining the union, there were always small pockets of radical dissenters who refused to toe the establishment line. There was the 1907 carters strike when Big Jim Larkin succeeded in uniting unionist and nationalist workers in common cause - much to the consternation of both the unionist establishment and the Catholic hierarchy. Padear O'Donnell succeeded in uniting nationalists and unionists in common cause against unionist bosses in County Armagh during his term as ITGWU organiser. Unionists from the Shankill joined forces with nationalists from the Falls in common cause during the Outdoor Relief riots and a Wolfe Tone Society operated on the Shankill Road for a time during the thirties.

Again, during the thirties several hundred working class unionists from East Belfast and the Shankill aligned themselves with Republican Congress - a move that evoked the fury of the republican leadership under Moss Twomey and the 'radical' Sean MacBride who organised an IRA unit to prevent them from 'desecrating' the sacred ground of Bodenstown. The comments of George Gilmore that it would be a long time before they'd hear "Up the Shankill" again at Bodenstown proved to be prophetic. Many of our families voted for dissent in less spectacular ways by seeking to return Labour and, in East Belfast, even communist candidates. Others preferred to vote for independent unionists.

Prior to the greening of the trade union movement, and the start of the economic bombing campaign waged against the unionist community by those claiming to be fighting for a socialist republic, there was a strong working class unionist presence within the Labour and Trade Union Movement. The old dogma that “labour can wait” until the prods are bombed into submission is a dogma that needs to be buried. There can be no true unity of the working classes while one section of it believes that socialism can be imposed on the other section at the point of a gun.

Contrary to popular belief it was not always the bigoted redneck prods who refused to pursue a "joint struggle alongside their fellow workers from the Falls or the Short Strand”. The Catholic hierarchy, Gombeen Nationalists and various Republican leaders were just as anxious as any unionist to divert the working classes away from the real issues that affected their every day living. But in these days of chronic nationalist self-righteousness the politically correct version of history exonerates the nationalist-republican community and lays the blame squarely on the unionist family - especially the "poor Orange trash" of the unionist working class communities.

If, as Brian Kelly wishes, we are to see through the tissue of lies that have been fed to us and if we are to bury "the dead dogmas of the past”, socialists need to acknowledge that the unionist community does not have a monopoly on those old time-worn dogmas. If there is to be a funeral service for the past it will have to be attended by both communities.

It is ironic that those working class unionists whom pro-nationalist socialists criticise most are not the groupings within loyalism that are still wedded to sectarianism or violence, but those of us who are striving to rekindle the spirit of independent thought and break free from the shackles which held us captive for so long to the unionist establishment. Both "Fourthwrite" and "The Blanket" have been criticised by socialists for allowing people like myself space to air our views and, at one of the Voice of the Lark debates, it was a self-proclaimed socialist who objected to Tommy Gorman reading a paper on my behalf. We have been picketed and heckled by socialists demanding working class unity but rejecting our right to be part of that unity. Is it not a bit strange that those who whinge and girn most about unionist discrimination are to the fore in demanding that republican editors and debating panels deny working class unionists like myself the right to set forth our views. Will the real rednecks please stand up! It seems ludicrous to me for pro-nationalist socialists to call on the one hand for working class unity and on the other hand to refuse to engage in dialogue with those who have a degree of influence within working class unionist communities.

Working class unionists as a whole are all too readily dismissed en bloc by pro-nationalist socialists as a people to be despised and caricatured as tattooed Neanderthals with shaven skulls and knuckles trailing the ground. Whereas in the Southern States of the USA it was the racist white supremacists (whom socialists rightly detest) who were guilty of dehumanising and caricaturing the Afro-American people, in Northern Ireland it is the self-righteous pro-nationalist socialist supremacists who are guilty of dehumanising the working class loyalist community - an analogy that perhaps Brian should give some consideration to.

Less than 25% of the membership of the Progressive Unionist Party, for example, ever had any connection with a paramilitary organisation. The vast majority of the party membership is made up of working class unionists who are disaffected from mainstream unionist parties and who want to engage in class-based politics. The party electoral base is comprised of the same type of people. Yet, with the exception of the Workers Party, the Official Republican Movement, and some members of the CPI, members of the PUP are treated with contempt by pro-nationalist socialist groupings. Rather than genuinely seek to develop working class unity on crucial social and economic issues many socialists seem committed to a policy of maintaining a single identity socialism that is rooted squarely within the nationalist community and tradition - a socialism that accepts non-nationalists into the fold only insofar as they are prepared to turn their backs on their cultural identity and their legitimate desire to maintain their citizenship within the United Kingdom.

Brian quotes with approval the comments of Frederick Douglass, "The antagonism between the poor of both races is easily explained. They have divided both to conquer each." But surely nationalists and socialists who refuse to acknowledge that many loyalists have a genuine interest in opposing sectarianism and in developing a political agenda that seeks to address crucial social and economic issues are just as guilty of perpetrating division! If Brian is genuinely seeking encourage socialists in Northern Ireland to "challenge effectively a status quo that doles out poverty and misery to working people on the Shankill and the Falls..." he needs first of all to challenge effectively those socialists who refuse to engage with those of us who, not only hold similar aspirations, but who are already working to that end. A single identity socialism that is rooted and grounded in one (Catholic Nationalist) community, and that treats the other community with contempt, is not going to have much of a unifying effect. Indeed, why would you want unity of purpose between the Shankill and the Falls if you treat those from the Shankill who are most likely to engage with people from the Falls as political lepers? It sounds good - and it is the socialist thing to say - but is there any real meaning behind the rhetoric?

Over the past ten years or so a growing number of loyalists and republicans have worked constructively together to tackle social and economic issues through projects like the Springfield Inter-Community Development Project along the Shankill-Springfield interfaces and the LINC-InterComm alliance in North Belfast. These initiatives have continued in the midst of the worst of interface violence and against the backdrop of the reactionary voices of gloom and doom from certain mainstream politicians. Notwithstanding the recent upsurge in interface violence and sectarian attacks the tide is beginning to turn and positive inter-community work is continuing against the odds. Yet few from the more vociferous socialist groupings in Belfast have become engaged alongside us. Indeed a number of their members actually earn their living implementing social policies that militate against the welfare of some of the most vulnerable people in working class areas. But then Northern Ireland’s public servants have a tradition of serving their political paymasters rather than the general public - another thing that mainstream unionists and the new breed of upwardly mobile nationalists have in common. For many within my community there appears to be little or no difference between NIPSA and the Police Federation or Prison Officers Association.

Brian’s reference to “Those whites who managed to see through the race-baiting and who stood alongside blacks (rotten Prods?) were denounced as "nigger lovers" and "race traitors," expelled from their own "communities", physically attacked and occasionally lynched” will be well understood by those within loyalism who have been branded “fenian lovers”, “lundies” and “republican fellow-travellers”. I have lost count of the times when party colleagues and myself have had to deal with such insults. It is quite an experience to return from a function where you have been vociferously heckled by young militant socialists only to be further heckled by militant loyalists for daring to fraternise with the “other side”. Yes, and some of my colleagues have been expelled from their communities and some have lost their lives. The analogy rings true.

In closing, there are a growing number of working class unionists (loyalists), including some like myself who were once members of paramilitary organisations, who are willing to work constructively on common social and economic issues with those with whom we disagree on fundamental constitutional issues, and on issues of socialist ideology. Are pro-nationalist socialists prepared to do the same?

The cause of labour has been left waiting for eighty-six years north and south of the border while mainstream political parties use the “national question” as a means of perpetuating working class division (some paying lip service to addressing the question while secretly cherishing a hope that it will never be addressed - why kill the goose that lays the golden political egg!). Are socialists going to play the same waiting game - waiting until the border is removed, waiting until everyone can sing from the one ideological hymn sheet, waiting until the prods are sufficiently sanitised or bombed into submission…waiting … waiting …waiting…forever waiting. Meanwhile the divisions grow deeper, the poor grow poorer, the powerless remain disempowered and our communities continue to be locked into a vicious cycle of alienation, conflict and violence.

Can we really afford to keep the cause of labour waiting?







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We must dare to think 'unthinkable' thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world. We must learn to welcome and not to fear the voices of dissent. We must dare to think about 'unthinkable things' because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.
-James W. Fulbright

Index: Current Articles

22 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Pipedream Peace
Joe Graham


Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?
Billy Mitchell


Easily Annoyed
Peter Urban


Academics on Independence, Part 1

Paul Fitzsimmons


Sabra & Shatila

Anthony McIntyre


Palestine & Iraq
Brendan Hughes


Not In Our Name
Davy Carlin


Death Fasts and Oppression Continue in Turkey


19 September 2002


Belfast's "Poor White Trash" and the Dead Dogmas of the Past
Brian Kelly


Top Cat

Anthony McIntyre


Lower Than The Lowest of the Low
Liam O Ruairc


Civil Rights Vets Launch Status Campaign
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Peace Rather than Pipedreams
Sean Smyth


Bush War
Anthony McIntyre




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