Donal O’Cofaigh is the CWI’s first elected councillor in Northern Ireland and is pioneering the struggle for independent working-class political representation in the North. Below we print extracts of his speech at the evening rally of Socialism 2019
“Northern Ireland is a very divided society. When we’re young, we’re divided. When we’re old, we’re divided. Every single facet of life – housing, schools, churches, sports; everything is divided. They have walls – they’re getting higher, in the big cities, the ‘peace walls’. They even put walls between you when you die, in the cemeteries.
But there’s one place where workers are not divided – and that’s the workplaces. The one place where Protestants and Catholics come together daily and socialise and get on. And because of that they’re also unified in the trade union movement. So it is natural that if you really want to change Northern Ireland’s situation you’re going to have to build on the politics of the trade union movement, on the politics of the labour movement, and on the politics of socialism.
Like many other people my age, I grew up with a really rough upbringing, and I grew up with a lot of hate. I became a Marxist very young. I was inspired by Malcolm X, reading his works. I joined Sinn Féin to try and change things. I spent 12 years in the organisation before I finally gave up on it. I was a councillor, and I resigned my seat.
I was won over [to the CWI] on the basis of a revolutionary party, [of] socialism, of the unification of the working class, and the need to build a real, militant movement, grounded in the trade union movement, grounded in the politics of the socialist movement going back for decades.
I built a support base of people in the union movement, became the secretary of the trades council. We built a movement in Fermanagh that defeated the very first instance of fracking. We built a mass movement that mobilised.
I stood as a Fermanagh Against Fracking councillor and eventually as a Cross-Community Labour councillor, and we got elected on the third time. And it’s an historic moment, because it’s a validation of the politics of the CWI that says: you can transcend division, you can unite working-class people.
We’re 1,020 days, or something like that, without a functioning government in Northern Ireland. We’re really in a lot of crisis. We’ve a health service falling apart. Lowest pay rates for the NHS workers anywhere in the NHS. We’ve a manufacturing crisis.
We’ve got the border poll, which is basically a poll of coercion, offering nothing but a capitalist united Ireland on the one hand, and partition under capitalism on the other the hand. That’s no hope for anyone. That offers no way forward. We’ve a rising tension from demographic change.
We’ve the Brexit situation; a strike of capital. And you’ve got imperialist blocs on either side playing politics with that, to the extent that we’ve had car bombs. The killing of Lyra McKee – the CWI comrades, were the people who organised the rallies that opposed that. In the 1970s, it was our activists out there trying to stop the descent into civil war which was on the cards.
It’s real. It’s always implicit in the situation where you’ve such divisions. Unless you get leadership from the trade union movement, unless you get a labour alternative, unless you get cross-community, socialist politics – it will always eventually go back to that. The [sectarian] parties will always take it back to that because that’s the position of strength that they can rely upon. But their votes have decreased for the last five elections. Their power to divide the working class – it’s actually not as strong as it was.
DUP and Sinn Féin
The DUP propping up the Tory party. Sinn Féin pushing PFI, Sinn Féin pushing a 12% corporation tax rate. These things have broken the link. Sinn Féin and the DUP voting to implement the Tory Universal Credit. This is the reality that’s out there.
It’s the trade unions who have stepped up to the plate. 20,000 public sector workers have been on strike in the last month, on and off, under Nipsa. Unite has had the ten-week occupation of a shipyard, and a ‘Titanic’ struggle! We had the Wrightbus – the biggest rally in the history of Ballymena, I think, in 52 years – a Cross-Community Labour rally. I was proud to be on that. And I want to send a particular shout-out to the meatpackers in Lurgan who are going to go out in a real hard strike.
So there is a possibility of a trade union, a labour alternative coming forward; a real socialist politics in the middle of that. It’s not certain that we have to face conflict. It’s not certain that we have to face the possibility of a vicious, brutal civil war, and a repartition – which is possibly what you could see happening in the worst-case scenario. That does not have to be our future.
There’s a hope for a progressive alternative. And that hope is lit up by the CWI. We stand against individual terrorism. We stand against state repression. We stand against sectarian division. We stand for a socialist Ireland, and a socialist federation of England, Scotland and Wales – and a socialist Europe, and a socialist world.
And it isn’t a utopia. It’s the only way forward.”