A range of people including some from different parties and organisations and none attended The Workers’ Party Northern Ireland Regional Conference on Saturday October 10th. As well as WP members and supporters, there were trade unionists, people from voluntary organisations, and members of other parties, including the British Labour Party, the Irish Labour Party, the Communist Party of Ireland, and the Ulster Unionist Party. Apologies if I missed anyone out, as is entirely possible. I thought it was a good, positive day, with lots of good discussion, and there was a clear sense among the people present that there was a real chance for the left to better cooperate. Jenny of East Belfast Diary attended the morning session, and her account can, indeed should, be read here, both for her account of the debate and her own thoughts.
The theme of the morning session, after introductory remarks by WP General Secretary John Lowry outlining the purpose of the conference and the political situation reagarding the left and also sectarianism in Northern Ireland, was Opportunities for the Left in Northern Ireland. The speakers were Gerry Grainger, Michael Robinson of the Irish Labour Party’s NI Constituency Council speaking in a personal capacity, and former Ulster Unionist councillor Chris McGimpsey. All three gave very interesting, and very different talks. Gerry Grainger analysed the economic crisis, and addressed important, and perhaps perennial, questions for the broad left. These included how we should define the left in the context of NI, how the social democratic and transformative (i.e. revolutionary) left could better cooperate, and what we are entitled to expect from the trade unions, especially when the political left in NI is weak. As well as discussing the possibility for growth of the left, he spoke of the need to defend as far as possible jobs and public services, and expressed a hope that the trade unions could play a more active role in these areas.
Michael Robinson’s talk centred mainly on the Assembly, and how the commonplace statements of our local politicians about the bloated public sector and the need for efficiencies etc were actually undermined by work undertaken by their own departments. Using facts and figures, which of course I failed to note down, he pointed out that the people making a lot of decisions knew next to nothing about the things they were responsible for; instead of reading the relevant documents they relied on cliches. He also attacked the privitisation of government functions, and the handing over of key areas of policy to undemocratic appointed bodies (in light of a recent report criticising the Executive’s economic strategy as failing to deliver high value jobs, this strikes me as particularly important at this time). Like the other speakers, he saw there being opportunities for the left.
Chris McGimpsey, speaking as someone who identifies with the left in a party now firmly dedicated to the right, and as the representative of a tradition rarely heard from, was very interesting. He talked about his own experiences of representing the Shankill, and its traditions of labour politics, though speculated that he lost his seat due to a lot of the older Northern Ireland Labour Party voters dying out. He reckoned though that the UUP’s decision to link to the Tories potentially opened up space for other parties, especially as the constitutional issue has been parked. He spoke of the possibilities of the left cooperating on concrete issues that concerned everyone, and that this type of cooperation was the best way to build cooperation and left progress.
The debate from the floor saw people in broad agreement with the speakers. Issues raised included the reasons for the failure of the Civic Forum (especially resentment from politicians) and the possibility of restoring it; whether it might be possible to have a minimalist programme around which the left could unite for the next election (this was raised by a member of the British Labour Party, and it seems to me that such a programme would most likely be significantly to the left of that endorsed by the British and Irish LPs elsewhere, which should reduce the potential problems); the fact that both unionist labourites and left social democrats may well face choices on whether to stay or go from their organisations in the future; and whether a new think tank along the lines of the Wolfe Tone Societies could provide a model that would allow people within parties to cooperate with each other more effectively, while also drawing in people with much to offer who had never been in parties or who had no wish to return to party politics. This last proposal received a lot of support, and will hopefully be acted upon in the not too distant.
The afternoon session started with an update on the Seán Garland campaign, although the Reverend Chris Hudson had literally been sent on a mission from God (the Garland petition is still available to be signed of course, and support is still very welcome), and then moved on to a discussion of unionism in the 1960s. Marc Mulholland, author of a book on unionism under Terence O’Neill, provided an analysis of unionism in the 1960s. He discussed how O’Neill was a strange fit for the Unionist Party, and was basically a snob holding most of his own MPs in such contempt that he built a new toilet for himself to avoid them. More fundamentally, he argued that the main aim of the Unionist Party was to ensure it kept control of Stormont. This explained its hostility towards independents and the NILP, which made a serious dent in the unionist monolith, before O’Neill’s technocratic plans for modernisation clawed back much lost ground. Once August 1969 had erupted, and Westminster became more directly involved, unionism’s aim became to ensure that the British did not sell them out. He stressed the fear that unionists had that they would be swamped by catholicism and nationalism; in this context, gerrymandering sought to contain nationalist political representation within acceptable bounds rather than to eliminate it altogether.
Roy Garland’s extremely engaging talk supported much of what Mulholland had said. Although he is now very much on the progressive wing of unionism, Garland was effectively a Paisleyite in the Unionist Party in 1969, and he talked about his experience of Tara in the years that followed. He explained how his politics had come to change in those years to the extent that by 1972 he was convinced that militancy was the wrong path. He spoke about the importance of religion to the circles in which he moved (he could end up at church 5 different times on a Sunday), and also of fear. Fear of Dublin and of catholicism. He, like Mulholland, pointed to the reality of class tensions within unionism, and these were important in convincing him that there was a need for an alternative type of politics.
The discussion that followed centred round class and unionism, but also saw comparisons drawn about the power of culture and religion in ensuring the continuation of reactionary politics north and south. The conference closed with good remarks from WP President Mick Finnegan, which discussed the south as well as the north. All in all, I think it was a successful day, with the conference achieving its aim of providing a space for the discussion of left politics among a wide section of progressive opinion. It looks hopeful that there will also be concrete developments as a result, so plenty to look forward to for next year’s.