SOME 5,000 people joined a protest against sectarianism outside Belfast City Hall in Northern Ireland on Friday of last week. The rally was in response to the sectarian murder of a young Catholic man, Gerard Lawlor, by Loyalist paramilitaries. The Loyalist death squad, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, appeared on TV wearing balaclavas and combat gear and wielding guns, claiming responsibility for the murder.
The protest reflected how sick most workers are of continued sectarian violence. As Tony McGuire from the Fire Brigades Union put it, 'We need the working class, the trade unions, to show that people on the ground aren't prepared to tolerate the murder of an innocent young lad.'
Top politicians and the press try to claim that Loyalists and Republicans are equally to blame for the violence in Northern Ireland. But even a recent report by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the renamed RUC) found that the overwhelming majority of sectarian killings were carried out by Loyalist paramilitaries.
Last week's rally was called and organised by Belfast City Council and Sinn Fein mayor Alex Maskey, and supported by all the main political parties (except Ian Paisley's DUP). On Thursday of last week 900 social service workers in the North and West Belfast NHS Trust, members of the Nipsa public service union, struck for 24 hours after a worker received a death threat. A Loyalist terror gang had sent the worker a bullet in the post.
Some 400 workers held a rally outside Transport House in Belfast. They expressed fury at the death threat, but also at the lack of resources they have for working in the frontline of both violence and severe social deprivation.
Unionist and Loyalist politicians attacked the strikes. Loyalist assembly member Billy Hutchinson of the PUP party said, 'I'm fed up of the unions taking decisions on a whim and which are for one side of the community.'
Last weekend postal workers at the Great James Street delivery office in Derry walked out for 48 hours after a worker received a death threat from the Loyalist 'Red Hand Defenders'. In February postal workers struck after a threatening letter against 11 workers from the 'Waterside Young Loyalists', warning workers not to enter the Waterside Protestant area of the city.
The recent strikes give a glimpse of the way sectarianism in Northern Ireland can be challenged from below.