Harland and Wolff shipyard in East Belfast may not seem to be the most obvious example of ‘left unity’ you can think of. Yet, currently, the workers in that famous yard have taken a stand in effectively blockading the work-site to prevent their jobs from being ripped out from under them, and their community. As I write there are hopes that this action may yet have created the space for a buyer to come in and rescue the plant that the bumbling British Government refuse to nationalise, even as the Stormont administration continues its disappearing act failing the people and workers of Northern Ireland.
Notably, as often happens, it is from crisis that unity has emerged. Workers with no wages have been supported by their fellow union members, and others, with financial and other support to keep the plant, and hope, alive. This support has been provided across borders of culture and mind. This is ‘left unity’ in action. Workers coming together to support the protection of each other’s jobs.
This coming November Unite will sponsor a new event, the ‘Unite The Union Champions Cup’. On 8 November in Belfast Linfield Football Club will host either Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers and three days later a return fixture will take place in the South. A Trade Union will, for the first time ever, sponsor a football contest between two clubs deeply rooted in working class communities with very different histories. It may well come just days after Brexit when, if the sociopaths leading the British Conservative Party have their way, a border with necessary checks will be re-imposed on this island.
Unite are taking this initiative because we believe our equality agenda is key to delivering a better Ireland for us all. We will promote anti-sectarian work by challenging sectarianism, not hiding from it. We want to promote our anti-racist ethos by addressing it, highlighting it and working in communities to tackle the growing scourge of racism head on. The rights and needs of the LBGTQ community needs discussion too and it, and the vital issue of women’s rights, will also feature in the promotion of this new event.
Will it work?
Who knows? But we are trying to build working class unity, ‘left unity’, in new and exciting ways.
We hear many calls for ‘left unity’, and as much bemoaning its apparent absence from across the political spectrum. Even the establishment right constantly point to the failure of ‘the left’ to provide an opposition that they would try to kill at birth (and have done in the past) should it ever show signs of emerging.
Recently one of the smaller political parties called for it again. To the media. This worthy and welcome call came timed for press coverage and late Summer ‘Think-Ins’ and spoke of a letter nobody has seen. The detail of the call was interesting. It spoke of both a failure to build a housing campaign on the scale of Right2Water and the need to exclude Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from discussion, something I wholeheartedly agree with.
Yesterday (Monday) I was driving to work listening to Morning Ireland on RTE Radio 1. The Irish Labour Party, with a mere 7 Dail seats, were having their ‘think in’ and RTE gave their leader Brendan Howlin a prime time slot to discuss. What they discussed was the potential for Labour to win 7-10 seats in the next Election (they won 37 in 2011 and spectacularly blew it) and whether they would again prop up a right wing Government if they did so. We were told that Senator Ivana Bacik again opposed such a scenario, and Brendan Howlin again supported it. There would have to be a special post-election convention (that’s them deciding what to do with your votes AFTER you have cast them) and it would be ‘difficult’ for the party, but it’s likely that they would enter Government again.
You may be expecting me now to remind you of how this is just a replay of the 2011 ‘debate’ Labour had when they decided that ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ would in fact be Frankfurt’s way and spent the next 5 years skewing the working class with such relish that they became despised. It seemed they fell over themselves to get the Ministries (housing, water, public expenditure) where they could do the maximum harm to the most vulnerable. Well no, I’m not going to talk about that. Go back further. Labour have served the second highest total number of years (19) in coalition Government in the state, second only to Fianna Fail. On every single occasion the Party has asked itself whether it should prop up a right wing Government it has answered ‘yes, we’ll take those Ministers jobs alright’, and on every single occasion it has weakened itself and damaged the working class. Not only have the positions not changed in decades, but even the names are the same. As long ago as 1989 Ivana Bacik and Brendan Howlin were having the same ‘debate’, with the same inevitable outcome.
If we are ever to see Ireland’s first progressive Government this pantomime must be called out, not facilitated on ‘the left’. What do I mean by this?
The recent extolling of the water charges movement in the left call for unity seems to me to miss an obvious point. The water charges movement didn’t begin with politicians. Or Trade Unions. The most united campaign we ever had began when a woman in Cork said ‘thou shall not pass’ to a water meter installer and her neighbours followed her lead. She led! Soon the Community in Edenmore did the same. Citizens led. Unions supported with money and logistics, the politicians got behind the campaign, but the water charges movement won (for now) because it was bottom up, not top down.
History will recall that when it came straight after to the housing emergency the campaign that was formed could not have been like Right2Water because it was deliberately structured to be the complete opposite to Right2Water. It was structured to be headed and controlled by politicians with some limited union support. It even brought the Labour Party itself in from the cold, opened the door to the party that had by 2016 presided over the sharpest rises in homelessness in Ireland since the famine. It was not about ground up community building where parties and unions respond to community building. And so, unfortunately, it didn’t work and the crisis turned into an emergency.
So where to now?
A number of things strike me. Imagine if all those calling for ‘left unity’ from within their own divided parties actually just left and started to work together for a bigger, greater good instead of fighting for 1 or 2 percentage points in polls and elections.
Then imagine if we just all accepted that Labour are simply part of a 2.5 party ‘state establishment’ that needs to be counteracted and that they are as left, right and opportunistic as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have ever been, and we just aren’t falling for their theatre anymore.
And then imagine if we stopped just calling for ‘left unity’ and got on with building campaigns together, working together, soldiering together and being humble enough to show respect to each other while we did so. Right2Water worked (so far) because it stuck to simple core principles and was community driven, ground up.
Next Saturday (11 am in Abbey Street) the ‘Tom Stokes Unite Community Branch’ will begin the work of building a Deaf Community Branch, and we are also on the verge of building a ‘Hospitality Branch’ for workers – many of whom are migrant workers – being abused in the sector by outfits such as the disgraced ‘The Ivy’ in Dublin. There is work afoot, and work to be done. And yes, let’s talk about not repeating the mistakes of the past for once.
I’m finishing by asking the question again, of everyone. Maybe it is time people started to come up with honest answers:
‘Do you want to be a small part of something really big, or are you content to be a big part of something small?’
(LOOK OUT FOR OUR NEXT BLOG AT THE WEEKEND FROM UNITE’S RHONA McCORD ON CLIMATE CHANGE AND HOW WE NEED TO ALL GET BEHIND THE STUDENTS LEADING THE FIGHTBACK ON THE ISSUE.
TO GET INVOLVED IN THE ‘TOM STOKES UNITE COMMUNITY BRANCH’ EMAIL firstname.lastname@example.org