By Bernie McAdam
16 March 2015
A mass strike involving up to 50,000 public sector workers was held across the north of Ireland on Friday 13 March. NIPSA, UNITE, INTO, GMB and UNISON called out members in transport, health, social services, education and the civil service against the Stormont Executive’s plans to cut the Budget by millions of pounds and slash public service employment by over 20,000 jobs.
Thousands of strikers and supporters demonstrated and held rallies in several towns and cities. Hundreds of picket lines were organised and enthusiastically supported throughout the day. Belfast had around 10,000 at their rally whilst Derry had over 2,000 protesters. Hundreds of off duty firefighters also joined the protest in Belfast.
The action was a tremendous response to the draconian austerity which the British government and its loyal henchmen in the Stormont executive intend to carry out. Of course this is not the first tranche of cuts. Teachers’ union leader Gerry Murphy told the Belfast rally that since the financial meltdown of 2008 3,000 teachers have already been made redundant and now a further 2,000 teachers and support staff are threatened.
Since one day of action is unlikely to shift the authorities it is hardly surprising that union leaders are talking of further action. NIPSA president Padraig Mulholland speaking at a public meeting in Strabane said he would like to see a further strike on May 1st and that only ‘a campaign of real meaningful industrial action’ would succeed in facing down the Conservative Party. The teachers’ union INTO has also pledged further action.
The Stormont House Agreement is the latest in a long line of cuts which all major political parties have supported. The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein as the two principal peddlers of the deal argue that the ‘reward’ of a reduction in corporation tax will provide more jobs in the private sector. However, in the face of huge hostility to the deal and the prospect of mass strike action, Sinn Fein conveniently backtracked claiming that they could not vote for the welfare reform bill as the DUP had acted in bad faith on welfare protections.
This empty posturing had nothing to do with fighting the job losses and even the welfare protections, in which certain top ups would not apply automatically to past and present recipients of disability living allowance, were only a small fraction of the cuts. SF and the DUP are currently negotiating to construct a new understanding. Given the intransigence of the Tories we can only assume that any new deal that might accept Sinn Fein’s argument on welfare protections would involve cutting elsewhere.
The myth that Sinn Fein would like us all to believe, in the words of Martin McGuinness, is that ‘Sinn Fein does not do austerity’. This is a lie. They’ve been ‘doing’ it for some time in the north. At the Newry rally Councillor Davy Hyland was spot on when he said, ‘It is patently obvious to one and all that you cannot object with one hand and implement with the other!’. No wonder that Micky Brady SF candidate for the General Election in Newry and Armagh was told he was not welcome on the picket line at the Jobs and Benefits Office on Bridge St. The NIPSA rep said ‘You cannot cut our services and then join a protest against the cuts.’
Jimmy Kelly UNITE leader speaking in Belfast alluding no doubt to Sinn Fein and others, ‘We do not accept blaming the Tories is a justification for administering the cuts’. Just as much as we rail against Labour councils in Britain who say they have to cut because the Tories have given them no choice, so it is necessary to say loud and clear that if you are against the cuts then fight them. Do not collude in their implementation.
If Sinn Fein’s hypocrisy is sickening enough then the DUP’s appetite for anti working class measures is more up front. They warn that any block to the welfare bill will see the downfall of the peace institutions and the reintroduction of direct rule from Westminster. This kind of talk raises the blood pressure for both Sinn Fein and trade union leaders, both of whom are desperate to preserve the peace process.
The Derry socialist Eamon McCann is right to point out ‘that this is the first time trade unions have opposed a Stormont deal. On every previous occasion, they have hailed the outcome as a welcome contribution to the consolidation of peace.’ Trade union leaders reflecting the rising anger of their members would now like to end austerity even if Sinn Fein don’t. However union leaders are still politically hamstrung knowing that they will not want to be held responsible for the collapse of Stormont. This fear of provoking sectarianism by bringing down a sectarian assembly reflects a wrong headed vision of working class unity in the north.
In fact the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly is nothing but a sectarian carve up. It has presided over a state in which sectarianism has increased. The dominant Unionist party the DUP, a sectarian party if ever there was one, has serially provoked sectarian tension by its appeals to loyalism on the question of flags and Orange marches. Despite ‘peace’ Northern Ireland is still an Orange sectarian state. Austerity is vital to its very existence. Let there be no mistake – a victory for austerity will be a victory for Unionism’s sectarian agenda.
If austerity is to be stopped then it will require united Catholic and Protestant working class action against the Stormont executive and that necessarily means taking on the British government whether Stormont falls or not. If austerity must be sacrificed for the peace then our union leaders must be told we want class war.
It is clear that a widespread and militant mood prevails across the north. The question that is posed once again. How do we win against the combined forces of the British government and the Stormont Executive? The trade union leaders will do well not to heed the failed strategy of union bureaucrats in Britain. Mimicking a one day strike every so often and drawing out the dispute until demoralisation sets in is not the way forward.
Escalating the strikes to an all out indefinite strike must be on the agenda. Union leaders are generally not up for that. So how can it be achieved? It will be necessary to build a movement from below which can apply the appropriate pressure and hold the leaders to account..
Groups of rank and file workers in every union serious about winning this key battle should start taking the initiative. Calling meetings at work to discuss a plan of action that can be launched and coordinated with other unions and workplaces. We need a rank and file movement that can build a new fighting leadership in the unions.
Councils of action should be formed in every town and city. Every cut in the locality must be opposed. Every hospital department cut, every library closed and every job loss must be fought. Representatives and members of trade unions/workplaces should be involved in such a Council. The broader community on working class estates must be involved with unemployed and migrant workers on board too. Pickets, protests, leafleting estates and workplaces and of course direct action will all be needed.
If we have open, democratic and accountable Councils of Action linked together across the North with real mass backing in the community and workplaces then it will be all the more difficult for union leaders to sell us short or confine action to token stunts. We need working class democracy in control of a fight back against a state that backs the bosses and the bankers.
No doubt that Unionism will intensify its sectarian agenda to foment divisions between Protestant and Catholic workers on the back of this unified strike. No doubt that trade union leaders will decline a battle against the sectarian nature of the state. Workers should have no reservations about waging a non sectarian struggle against austerity which throws the sectarian state into crisis. Defeat spells economic disaster for working class families. Victory will act as a beacon to workers in the south as they battle on against the water charges and to workers in Britain in their fight against austerity. It would also open up the prospect of fighting for a new society based on need not greed and an Ireland that was finally rid of capitalism.
Forward to a 32 County Workers’ Republic!