From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 2, May 1972.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
In Ireland, the demand for a trade union defence force has been consistently advanced and fought for by supporters of the Militant. This demand is not something conjured out of the air by ourselves, by Lenin, Trotsky or any other individual. It is a crystallisation of the painful experience of the struggles of past generations of workers.
Such a defence force can grow organically out of the day to day struggles of the working class. No-one, not even Heath, would deny the effectiveness of the pickets during the recent miners’ strike. In some places, such as Saltley in Birmingham, thousands turned up to help with the picketing. The TU defence force is a generalisation of this type of experience.
To put it quite simply, it is an extension of the picket-line, to defend not just factory gates, but working class homes, the lives of workers and the organisations of the working class.
What better example to illustrate this than that taken from the pages of Irish history, the 1913 lock-out and the subsequent creation of the Citizen Army? From 1909 to 1913, the Irish employers threw all their weight behind the attempts to break the Larkin’s T&GWU and with it cripple the power of organised labour.
All the forces of the state – the police, the courts, the army and the church were mobilised against the workers. (In 1909, the Cork employers managed to break, after a month’s resistance, a strike of 6,000 ITGWU members which had been called in protest against the use of scab labour. The result of this defeat was the devastation of the union in Cork. No ITGWU branch existed there for four years after the strike.)
It was in order to inflict a similar defeat on the Dublin proletariat that the Dublin Employers Federation, led by William Martin Murphy, “a soulless money-grubbing tyrant”, as Larkin called him, in 1913 locked-out a total of 25,000 workers. With the importation of scab labour, the setting of police and hired thugs against the workers’ demonstrations, the ruling class
precipitated a do or die battle between themselves and the Dublin workers.
In one police attempt to break up a meeting in O’Connell St., two workers were batoned to death and another 400 were injured. With the forces of the state so clearly arraigned on the side of the employers, the locked-out workers could only look to themselves for defence.
During the dispute, the Aungier Street branch of the union provided the initiative. When the branch formed a band, they received threats from the police that the instruments would be smashed. The reply of the workers was to form a guard, armed with hurley sticks, to protect the band. The Citizen Army, a militia formed by the workers for their own protection, was built upon such examples as this. Of its inception, Connolly said,
“Hitherto, the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.”
The experience of the Dublin lock-out has been repeated countless times on an international scale. Whenever the oppressed sections of society have attempted to “carve their own future”, whether in a period of revolutionary upsurge to protect the gains of the revolutionary movement, or in a period of downturn to guard the workers’ organisations against the encroachments of reaction, events themselves have demonstrated the need for a workers’ militia.
To argue that the working class can rely on the police, army or any other force set up by and controlled by the state machine of the bosses, is to fly in the face of all historical experience. In the final analysis, the working class can only rely on one force, their own. Those people who in 1969 welcomed with open arms the arrival of the British Army in Ireland had forgotten all these things.
At that time, the Militant predicted: “The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil Rights leaders.” We went on to argue:
“The Northern Irish workers, both Catholic and Protestant, must rely on their own forces. Only common action through a joint defence committee can begin to defeat the grip of Tory Unionism. The vehicle for this is the Labour and TU movement.” (September 1969)
Today, with the increased polarisation and the split in the ranks of the TUs themselves, this demand does not diminish in importance, but becomes doubly and trebly relevant. The threat of sectarian invasion which hangs over many working class areas has made the question of defence of these areas a burning issue.
‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry is the answer to those who look to the army for protection. In the coming period, the army methods to which the Catholics have been subjected, could well be the tonic prescribed by imperialism for the Protestants. To both Catholic and Protestant workers, the army is something to be defended against and by no stretch of the imagination, a body which acts in their interests.
Only a force based on the TU movement can bring both sections of the working class together in organising their own defence. But while no lead is given by the heads of this movement, Marxists should campaign, as an initial measure, for the setting up of street committees in all areas. Out of these committees, a democratically elected body which could take upon itself the responsibility for the policing and the defence of areas, could be formed.
The purpose of a TU defence force is not simply to protect areas, but to safeguard the lives of trade unionists and to hold the TU movement itself together. The provocative speeches of William Craig, are a threat not only to the IRA, but to the Labour movement, particularly those shop floor militants who have stood out bravely against the Vanguard [organisation].
A circular given out over last summer, which called on Protestants to mobilise, included these words: “We are loyalists. We are Queen’s men. Our enemies are the forces of Romanism and Communism, which must be destroyed.” If Craig and his friends engage in drawing up a list of his enemies, that list will include what in his book are the ‘forces of Communism’ – i.e., trade unionists, members of the Labour Party and the Communist Party. Suffice to say that the Protestant Sunday News carried a report of threats received by the RUC, that amongst others, [NI] Labour MP Vivian Simpson would be assassinated.
Before the Vanguard-organised strike against direct rule, Billy Blease and the Northern Ireland Trade Union Committee called on workers to remain at work. Their plea was echoed by the Northern Ireland Labour Party. But on their own such calls mean nothing. In what they said, the statements of the above bodies could not be differentiated from that of the NI Chamber of Commerce and Trade.
No class lead, no alternative to Craig, has been offered. The vanguard strike was accompanied with threats and intimidation. At ICI, Catholic workers who refused to join the walkout had to barricade themselves in the factory building for protection. Thirty cars belonging to these men were wrecked. If the NI Committee is calling on workers to disregard the Vanguard, it must offer those who remain at work some form of protection.
Without the TU defence force, all their pleas will remain so much wind and hot air.
In August 1969, vigilante groups patrolled parts of Belfast. In Derry at that time, both the Labour Party and Young Socialists were represented by delegates on the Defence Committee. These small beginnings could have provided the skeleton to which a fighting campaign on the part of the Labour and TU leaders would have added the flesh and blood.
Even today, the Labour leaders would quickly gather support, were they to courageously canvass this idea and couple it with a class programme clearly in the interests of all sections of the working class: a programme for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, under democratic workers’ control. Those Militant supporters who have advanced the idea of a TU defence force, have met with an eager response from many of their workmates.
In one Belfast factory, which has been repeatedly bombed, the workers, through the shop committee, have organised themselves into a defence unit. During working hours, they take turns on an hourly shift of guard duty, during which they patrol the vicinity of the factory, armed with clubs. Both Protestant and Catholic jointly are involved in this and they have forced the management to give them full pay for the hours they lose. This is only a minute fraction of what would be possible, were the latent might of the Labour movement mobilised.
Last updated: 21.7.2012