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Northern Ireland: Huge Strike And Rally Against Sectarian Attacks
DESPITE THE wind and rain 80,000 turned out in Belfast for the trade union demonstration against sectarian attacks. This was bigger than any previous anti sectarian trade union rallies held during the Troubles.
Report by Belfast Socialist Party members
There were other packed rallies, especially in Derry where over 10,000 thronged the Guildhall Square. Thousands also turned out in Omagh, Newry, Enniskillen, Cookstown and Strabane.
This was a colossal demonstration of the power of the working class with perhaps 100,000 participating in total.
The turnout reflected the anger of workers, Catholic and Protestant at the murder of Daniel McColgan, a young postal worker shot dead by the UFF as he turned up for work, and at the threats issued to all Catholic postal workers and to all Catholic staff working in schools.
"POSTAL WORKERS are very, very angry. We're up at five in the morning delivering to every door and are easy targets. We are not prepared to tolerate these threats from anyone.
"The initial stoppage for 24 hours after the murder of Daniel McColgan was extended until the threat was lifted. This was the unanimous decision of a thousand strong meeting of postal workers held after the funeral.
"We don't view this action as the end but the start of an ongoing campaign against all paramilitaries and all threats no matter where they come from."
Gerry Robinson Branch Official CWU
This, on top of the nightly sectarian fighting, the constant attacks on ambulance personnel, firefighters, bus drivers and on school children, Catholic and Protestant, travelling to and from school, were a step too far for most people.
A week before the demonstration the teachers' unions, under intense pressure from the members, decided to take action. Then when Daniel McColgan was murdered, postal workers gave a lead by immediately walking out.
The pressure built on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) leadership to act. They issued a call for a twelve-hour strike starting at midday on 18 January. There was an immediate and overwhelming response from workers.
Teachers, in supporting the call, wanted to know why their union leaders were not going further, why they were expected to work under threat, why the strike was for a half day and not a full day.
Thousands of postal workers turned out on 15 January for their murdered colleague's funeral. Later that day 1,000 turned up for a mass meeting which decided to maintain the strike until the death threat was lifted. Not a single voice was raised against this at the meeting.
Within hours there was the absurd comedy of the UFF - who issued the threat using the cover name of the Red Hand Defenders (RHD) - instructing the RHD to disband. The following morning a statement from the RHD said they had disbanded! It may have been farcical but it showed that determined and united action by the working class can isolate the bigots.
Organised from below
FRIDAY'S RALLIES would have been even bigger had the unions not started to back off from the call they had made for a strike. Most unions failed to issue clear instructions to their members.
Rather than organise for a complete shut down some negotiated a two-hour break. In some workplaces officials reached agreement with management that production would continue while a token delegation attended the rallies.
But the confusion sown by the leadership did not deter the rank and file. Having heard the initial call from the top, workers went ahead and organised the strike from below. The backbone of all the rallies was the postal workers who turned out in force with other organised contingents of teachers, firefighters, hospital workers, shop workers and many more.
The mood on the rallies was determined. There is an understanding that the sectarian polarisation is greater than ever and that what is happening across North Belfast could spread to other areas.
School Students Join Protest
SOCIALIST YOUTH responded to the attacks on school students by launching a new campaign - School Students UNITED Against Sectarianism. In the days leading up to the rally SSUAS leafleted about a dozen schools in Belfast calling on students to come out.
On the day about 70 school students from a number of schools marched with the teachers and the postal workers to the rally. SSUAS is now discussing further protest action if the attacks on school buses and protests at schools start again.
There is also a realisation that the sectarian politicians who sit around the table in the Stormont Executive have no answer, that the army and police can't stop what's going on and that it's down to ordinary people to act before it's too late.
Workers at the rallies were looking for answers as to how to take the campaign forward. The Socialist Party intervened in force, especially in Belfast, and our leaflets and papers were snapped up, despite the miserable weather reducing papers to mush.
Queues formed in front of our leafleters who distributed 7,000 leaflets. We sold 400 papers on the day - this on top of another 400 sold the day before and the day after.
We spelt out a clear message that the campaign should now be taken to the local areas with meetings between local trade union representatives and local community organisations. This could be followed by mass meetings and protests to mobilise people in the communities to stop the attacks and defend those providing services.
UNFORTUNATELY NO clear message came from the main rally's platform. In fact with no proper PA system 90% of those who turned up in Belfast heard nothing.
Instead of calling for an independent campaign the union leaders followed the rally with appeals to the "social partners" - churches, employers and government - to take things forward. But the working class's strength when it acts alone, under its own banners, has been shown. The trade union leadership may have drawn no lessons but big sections of the rank and file have.
The need for the campaign to continue was clear within hours of the rally. Despite this huge show of strength on the streets it was sectarian business as usual. Over the weekend petrol bomb attacks continued in Belfast and elsewhere. Catholic houses in North Belfast were attacked on the Saturday night. The following evening a 76-year-old Protestant man's home was firebombed.
"TEACHERS HAVE had no choice but to strike. No group of workers can be expected to work with a threat hanging over them. All the education unions need to act together to see that schools are safe for pupils and staff.
We have enough problems opposing performance related pay, trying to stop privatisation and fighting for adequate recourses for the classrooms without facing threats."
Mary Cahillane, teacher, INTO Northern Ireland Committee
That night firefighters were attacked in North Belfast and three injured. Buses bringing disabled children and those with severe learning difficulties to a tabernacle in North Belfast were also attacked and some of the kids left traumatised.
The town and city centre rallies show that the working class have the power to isolate and defeat the bigots. That power must now be used with the communities to call a halt to what is happening.
SEVENTY people turned up to a very successful Socialist Party meeting immediately after the Belfast demonstration. Union activists from the FBU and Irish National Teachers Organisation joined Socialist Youth and Peter Hadden and Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party on the platform.
Socialist Party members played a leading role in organising demonstrations outside Belfast, especially in Cookstown, Enniskillen and Omagh. Four members were platform speakers. Five members appeared on the ITV and BBC news, either interviewed or shown speaking from the rally platforms.
In The Socialist 25 January 2002: