Is the North more polarised than ever? Belfast City Councillor Matt Collins gives his take on the possibility for class politics in the North
On April 7th, a small but remarkable rally took place in Belfast; when hundreds of workers and their supporters held a joint rally on the peace line between the Falls and Shankill Road. The workers had gathered, at first, for two separate rallies on either side of the sectarian divide—thereafter marching to the same location for a joint demonstration hosted by People Before Profit.
It was a dazzling display of worker’s unity—an antidote to the lazy appraisal that such things are impossible, and that Belfast’s beleaguered population is intractably wedded to division. The backdrop to the march, and the factors precipitating its organisation, will be familiar to workers in Belfast and beyond; outsourcing, job losses, and degradation in terms and conditions. In this case, however, it was leisure workers baring the brunt of the neo liberal onslaught—most recently with the loss of 49 jobs in centres across the city. This disgraceful move was only the latest in a long litany of grievances building up among leisure staff and users since Belfast City Council outsourced the service in 2014. A disastrous decision if there ever was one.
Class Unity Delivers
The Shankill/Falls march would have an immediate impact; within days’ establishment parties were climbing over each other to condemn leisure management. It was an interesting about turn—only months before these same politicians were attacking People Before Profit as “scaremongers” for raising worker’s grievances. Bad news stories like job losses, you see, simply do not sit well beside shiny PR videos lauding the outsourced developments. Still, the change of tune was significant and testament to the power that even a small display of class unity can have for workers and their families.
Some might chalk up the Shankill/Falls march as a one off. Perhaps they are correct. But another campaign developing at the same time suggested that a wider mood of class anger may be developing in the city. In March of this year, plans were leaked to amalgamate ten special needs schools in Belfast into three; resulting in the closure of a number of schools, likely job losses and untold disruption to thousands of special needs children. The plan beggared belief—with parents stunned that they were not properly consulted on the matter—and was obviously driven by a desire to save money. Immediately plans were afoot to resist this attack; scores of parents from across Belfast were brought together by PBP MLA Gerry Carroll. A mass protest at City Hall was organised, and another right on the doorstep of the Education Authority (EA).
Again, these displays of unity had an immediate impact. Many of the political parties who stayed suspiciously silent after the plans were leaked came out against them. And then the EA itself was forced to put the brake on the amalgamations, at least temporarily. No doubt they will come back again in the autumn to restart this neoliberal plan. And leisure workers can be assured that the austerity agenda that has eroded their terms and conditions will continue as well. But these fights show what is possible when people take a stand.
Is there a wider significance to these modest flourishes of class politics? I think there is. Firstly, we continuously hear the refrain that the only solution to people’s problems is the resurrection of Stormont. Without ‘our politicians’ legislating, people will lose out—or so the argument goes. But it was not establishment politicians who put the leisure job losses on the agenda. It was not establishment politicians who beat the EA back when they cut the schools. Instead, it was the actions of people power; parents, workers and unions working together alongside socialist parties like People Before Profit inside a movement for change.
And it’s not just around the aforementioned leisure and schools campaign that this has happened. When cuts to youth services were announced; it was people power that stopped them. When drastic cuts to the health budget were announced; protests across the North beat them back. And who could argue that the cause of abortion rights, Irish language rights and other issues were further ahead when Stormont was up and running than they are now. Feet in the street has put these issues on the political agenda.
Therein lies, I think, a deeply significant point; relying on people power, rather than on establishment politicians, is much more likely to bring about real change for people than any deal at Stormont ever will. Of course, it would be remiss not to highlight the work of socialist politicians like Gerry Carroll—who worked their socks off to help make these movements happen. But then this is precisely the point; because people like Gerry are able to have this impact in the first place because they rely on people rather than on Stormont. The ABC of Socialist politics.
Time for Class Politics
There is a second significance to these events. We are told by the media and others, ad nauseam, that politics here is more polarised than ever. There is some truth in this; the last few elections have witnessed a concentration in votes towards the two main Nationalist and Unionist parties. And it is also true that the unity highlighted in this article is not the general picture on every issue. Never mind the fact that many working class communities remain under the control of sectarian paramilitaries; whether they are decked in balaclavas, or operating more openly within the murky penumbra of “community politics.” We should never doubt, therefore, the ability of sectarian forces to snuff out even the slightest hint of class politics.
But these small campaigns have shown that there is alternative means to uniting people around concrete issues, instead of putting our faith is some lash up at Stormont. Nor do we have to wait until Stormont is up and running before class politics can be fought for. This is a crucial point, in my opinion. The unfortunate passivity amongst some in this period—particularly in some sections of the Labour movement—is compounded by a reluctance to engage in battles unless absolute equivalence can be found between Unionism and Nationalism. With the DUP in coalition with the Tories, and Sinn Féin for now out of the Assembly, this is obviously not always the case. Worse still, are those who insist that every campaign must be non-political—that is, we should not criticise the DUP for their actions, for example, or that campaigns cannot have any connection to socialist parties who are taking the lead around these questions. Either way, the result is passivity.
Everyday there are activists in Trade Unions, communities and campaigns working to build a different type of politics for this place. Wherever there is a possibility of united action, progressives should seize on it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And sectarianism will not crumble in an instance either. But there is an onus on us all to get behind these bourgeoning fightbacks.
People interested in this topic should check out Sean Mitchell’s fantastic book on the Outdoor Relief Riots of 1932, its entitled “Struggle or Starve:Working Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots” its well worth reading.