Socialist Worker

Sectarianism: Belfast workers explain why the divisions remain and how they can be fought

RECENT IMAGES of sectarian rioting, petrol bomb attacks and families driven from their homes in Belfast could be mistaken for newsreels from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sectarian tension is set to increase as the Loyalist marching season reaches it

Issue No. 1808

Postal worker

NIALL MORTON is a postal worker who works in the Mallusk post office in North Belfast. He led a walkout of postal workers in protest at the murder by Loyalists of a young Catholic worker, Danny McColgan, earlier this year.

'SECTARIAN VIOLENCE has never gone away, despite the peace process. The politicians have never attempted to deal with and challenge the Loyalist paramilitaries. The recent violence in North Belfast and in the Short Strand area have been orchestrated by the Loyalist paramilitaries in the UDA and UVF.

The press have blamed the IRA for much of the recent violence and rioting. But they ignore the fact that the Loyalists have carried out a concentrated campaign of pipe bombing and petrol bombing, and have even shot at children over the last year. This terror goes on, day in, day out.

In the Short Strand area in East Belfast a group of Loyalist women have recently been blockading a doctors' surgery which has served both Catholic and Protestant communities for years. Anyone who comes to the surgery from a Catholic area or who has a Catholic sounding name is turned away. The Loyalists want to drive the Catholic doctors out.

Now a number of the doctors have signed petitions in protest. There have been similar pickets outside further education colleges and post offices in that area. Some of the FE students were chased down the road by Loyalists throwing bricks and stones.

Some Republicans have been fighting on the streets, but only after Catholic homes have been hit by pipe bombs or blast bombs. Even a funeral procession was attacked by Loyalists. The areas where the Loyalists whip up violence are marked by massive social deprivation. The Loyalists are playing on people's feelings of hopelessness to mark out new territory, and to try to regroup.

They are picking up some support in the poorest areas, although generally people hate the sectarian violence. There was general repulsion when the UDA moved into the area near Holy Cross School and started attacking young schoolgirls.

But the mainstream politicians are not interested in seriously targeting sectarianism, and they do not challenge the social and economic inequalities which sustain it. The whole peace agreement is based on politicians speaking for 'their' community in competition with others.

You have to start defeating sectarianism in the workplace, where Protestants and Catholics mix together and can be collective. That means a fight for jobs-for everyone, not just one community. It means fighting for pay rises for everyone. Because workers in Northern Ireland are divided by sectarianism they get on average 18 percent lower wages than in Britain.

And it is because of sectarianism that we have longer hospital waiting lists and more health cuts. At work Protestant and Catholic workers get on together. The problem is that then people go home to their particular ghettos. That is why it is important to organise together and to stand together. There have been two murders near the Mallusk office over the last year. They were two Protestant lads gunned down by the UDA, who mistakenly thought they were Catholics.

Workers were angry that our management didn't seem to care about the effect on workers-the fact that some people are scared to go out. After the murder by Loyalists of our fellow postal worker Danny McColgan we walked out for a week, and took part in the big rally against sectarianism. That gave people confidence. The bigots in my workplace were silenced for a while and put on the back foot.'


Bus worker

SEAN SMYTH is a bus worker who has just retired. He took part in a series of strikes over pay at the end of last year.

'THE PROBLEM stems from the top of society. The reason sectarianism is flourishing is because we still live in a sectarian state where the British have divided people and Catholics are oppressed. The sectarian attacks and rioting are taking place in some of the poorest working class areas, not in the affluent tree-lined streets.

Bigoted ideas are whipped up by Loyalist paramilitaries, who are organising and orchestrating a campaign of pipe bombing Catholic homes. Their bigoted sectarian ideas take hold among poor Protestants because they have no chance in education and no hope of a future. Youth clubs have closed down, and funding for community groups has been slashed. A recent report found that homelessness in Northern Ireland is up by 23 percent and is worse than anywhere else in Britain.

Many poor Protestants believe they have got nothing from the peace process, and their Unionist and Loyalist politicians blame the Republicans. The reality is that workers on both sides have got nothing. The problem stems from the fact that sectarianism was institutionalised in the Belfast peace agreement.

Sectarianism creates divisions in the working class, and those divisions give the politicians a free hand to push ahead with privatisation. The Northern Ireland Assembly is pushing through the privatisation of our health, education and public transport under a massive extension of PFI and PPP schemes.

All the parties-the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein-are in favour of PFI and PPP. Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the education minister, has rightly come out against the 11-plus exam. But at the same time he is pushing through PFI schemes in schools. Already six new schools have been built or planned using PFI. Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun is pushing through closures and PFI in hospitals.

But that makes it easier for Loyalists to point the finger at Republicans. Every party is lobbying for lower corporate taxes for business, and yet at the same time they want to introduce water rates in Northern Ireland for the first time.'


Civil servant

RYAN McKINNEY is an assistant branch secretary in the civil servants' NIPSA union in Belfast.

'THE RECENT sectarianism is the last throes of Unionism. The Unionists are in crisis and want to hold on to power, so it suits them to whip up ideas of Protestant superiority.

The sectarian rioting is taking place in economically deprived areas like the Short Strand. There are very few jobs, and even less now that the previously big employers like Harland & Wolff and Shorts are going down the drain. The working class in these poor areas have not seen the benefit of the peace dividend.

Around the 'peace walls' which divide communities on the sectarian interfaces in North Belfast there are 100 yards of empty houses. Unfortunately the political system which has been set up in Northern Ireland, far from getting rid of sectarianism, has just polarised the divisions. In the assembly you have to declare whether you are Protestant or Catholic.

The politicians all blame the other side in the sectarian divide. So the Unionists blame the Republicans and the Republicans blame the Unionists. The only place people really come together is in the workplace. Where I work, in the Child Support Agency, there is a comparatively low level of sectarianism.

Yet even here the employers did a survey of the workforce, and 10 percent of people said that sectarianism was the biggest cause of stress and bullying. If the circumstances and conditions which give rise to sectarianism are not challenged, then it will keep coming back, and the Loyalist paramilitaries will be able to whip up tension.

We helped organise an anti-sectarian rally in the Short Strand area after an onslaught of sectarian attacks against Catholic families there. The rally involved trade unionists and local residents. It was viciously attacked by a group of 200 Loyalists with iron bars, bricks, bottles and blast bombs. Several people were injured.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) should keep up the pressure and call more rallies against sectarianism. The rally and strikes that the ICTU called after the murder of Danny McColgan in January were a huge success. When I went into work that week everyone was talking, debating and arguing about the way forward.

But now they need to keep up the pressure. The trade unions need to relate to what is happening and actively challenge sectarianism. The example I point to is the struggle of the security workers at Belfast International Airport, which is uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. It is a concrete example-albeit on a small scale-of what can be done.'


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Article information

Features
Sat 13 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1808
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