An evening of dialogue on class politics

Team from Independent Workers Union address working class agenda in East Belfast 

IWU panel

Above: L-R. Mary Connolly, Patricia Campbell, Chairperson Chris Hudson, Bill Cogan, Paul Stewart.

Reluctant to risk getting lost in loyalist East Belfast, the two Dublin trade unionists took a taxi across the city centre to where their union was participating in a public discussion. They were anxious not to be late for an event that marked a new departure for their Cork-based union. The Independent Workers’ Union was providing a panel of speakers for an evening of dialogue on class politics and organised labour in post-Agreement East Belfast, chaired by Rev. Chris Hudson. The agenda ranged across fighting for a living wage, David Cameron’s debilitating austerity policies, educational under-achievement, and adjusting to immigration. 

While speaking to the taxi driver the Southern men gained their clearest insight into existing economic conditions affecting parts of working-class Belfast. The taxi man told them that nowadays some of the area’s pubs close early because of a shortage of paying customers.

One evening in particular stood out in the driver’s mind. A small number of football fans were watching a Champions’ League match when the owner told them at half-time to drink up, because he was closing. The football supporters were not spending freely enough to pay the barman’s wages. Unable to afford satellite television in their own homes, the men missed the rest of the match.                                   

James copy

Contrary to what many outsiders understand to be the unionist heart of Belfast, it is East Belfast, rather than the Shankill Road, that epitomises the historical epicentre of this community. The district was once home to the mighty Harland and Wolff shipbuilding enterprise, based around Queen’s Island, where thousands of men were employed building some of the world’s most renowned ships. For almost a century these workers viewed themselves as among the elite of the United Kingdom’s working class. No longer, though, as the heavy industries that once allowed the city to prosper have fallen victim to globalisation, and many among the area’s inhabitants now suffer from unemployment and deprivation.       

Nor is the situation helped by thoroughly inadequate government-sponsored initiatives to address industrial decline. Typical of these feeble state-devised schemes was a project designed to create a local tourist attraction, the well-publicised Titanic Interpretative Centre. Providing few local jobs, this venture is often resented by long-time residents, who look on it almost as an insult, as many grandchildren of those who built the great ship find the attraction too expensive to visit. 

As the trade unionists’ meeting began, the participants from Dublin noticed that a sense of frustration rather than anger was the prevailing mood among many of those who had gathered. An initial conversation on the sensitive topic of educational under-achievement drew a series of comments and questions. While poor educational standards are a problem in many working-class communities, it is a major concern within Belfast’s unionist working class. Study after study has revealed the close correlation between poverty and meagre educational qualifications, creating an unhelpful cycle that makes such areas unsuited for and unattractive to the demands of contemporary industry. Local speakers tended to blame the minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland, John O’Dowd (Sinn Féin), for this situation. His department was accused of closing local primary schools and ignoring parents’ petitions requesting that these badly needed facilities be retained.

Following the discussion on school facilities—or perhaps more accurately the lack of them—the chairperson moved to have the issue of economic austerity addressed. This is widely seen as a policy imposed by the London government, and there was little disagreement among those present about the detrimental impact of the strategy. Moreover, in spite of the fact that Sinn Féin is leading the political opposition to these measures in the Northern Ireland Assembly, there was much less criticism of that party’s position than might have been expected from this audience.   

The evening’s agenda ended with a conversation around the issues raised by migrants and migration. Notwithstanding the fact that many migrants have been the victims of racially inspired violence in unionist areas of Belfast, there was little evidence of racism from those present—quite the opposite, indeed, as speaker after speaker spoke rationally about this question.

When the Dublin trade unionists joined in, making the point that any toleration of injustice to a migrant worker would simply pave the way for similar treatment to every worker, there was universal agreement. Indeed the most passionate contribution of the event was made during this period when a young member of the Progressive Unionist Party told how a Bengali nurse had befriended his sister in Scotland.      

The IWU panel included speakers from Cork, Dublin, and Derry, who received a warm and courteous reception from a predominantly unionist audience in a community centre on the Newtownards Road. In the light of this civilised and friendly dialogue it would be tempting to make the mistake of believing that it might be relatively easy to reach an accommodation between these different sections of the Irish working class. Unfortunately, it is never that simple.  

In the first instance, it was clear that for many in the audience there was a disturbing lack of confidence in their own ability to influence events. People asked what the trade unions are doing for them. People angrily denounced the Assembly for not providing for them. People decried the churches for not being sufficiently active on their behalf. Obviously this passive outlook in relation to the state is not confined to Belfast, but it underlines a submissive mindset that is vulnerable to manipulation, and in this case by reactionary demagogues.     

Bill & Paul

Above: IWU members Bill Cogan and Paul Stewart address the meeting in Belfast

Ultimately, too, there was no avoiding the North’s political realities. As the meeting was ending, an agitated woman demanded to know what position the IWU took on the issue of whether or not the Union Flag should fly permanently over Belfast City Hall. The chairperson defused the situation quickly by saying that he regretted the lack of consensus over such matters. However, this uneasy moment revealed an ever-present and unavoidable difficulty. The Orange card is still in play and all too often trumps class unity. As a former loyalist prisoner despairingly commented, all they (i.e. the vested interests) have to do is raise the question of the union and the flag and all else is discarded.

Leaving the community centre, the Dublin union men reflected on their experience. They had received a friendly and courteous welcome from people who are experiencing the harsh working out of neo-liberalism as practised by an imperialist state. All present at the meeting agreed on the problems, although only a few in the room saw class unity being of greater importance than the constitutional issue.

This is a profound lesson for those well-meaning leftists who believe in a purely economistic answer to Northern Ireland’s problems. As a former leading communist in Ireland might have said, it’s possible to ignore the constitutional issue, but the constitutional issue won’t ignore us.

Tommy McKearney

© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com