The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

No Minimum Wage Here

Anthony McIntyre • 11 May 2004

Experienced trade unionists are always worthwhile talking to. Their accumulated knowledge of dealing with the conflict zone that is the workplace helps ground some of the more lofty but impractical ideals that at times beset us. Not that the trade unionist's perspective on industrial relations is always convincing. But a readiness to see things approached from a different angle adds nuance and depth to the outlook; if nothing else it curbs sloganising. During our H-Block days, we viewed the trade unions with a large measure of contempt. Forever fearful of dividing their membership they never seemed to confront the issues that we felt radicals should. Like something out of Fawlty Towers, the chant ‘don’t mention the war’ became the official mantra. Their overriding purpose, it seemed to us, was to promote a status quo-approved consensus, suppress conflict to the advantage of the bosses and take a stand only on the anodyne. And to buttress our cynicism, the screws had a union of their own - a legalised thugocracy.

But few of us were older than 21 and there was minimal experience of the workplace. So we knew little about unions. TUCAR seemed good, but only because it shared our political perspective. The same with IDATU in later years. When word came down from above telling any of us who had been trade unionists prior to imprisonment to write to our union and highlight the H-Block protest, there was nobody on our wing to step forward. And we wore that as a badge of pride. Preach as we might about Connolly and Larkin, belonging to a union seemed to be something for Sticks. In later years when we had acquired political literature, Marxist books exuding hostility, replete with accusations of tailism, workerism and reformism, became the prism through which we viewed the union movement.

Last Thursday as part of May week events an ex-prisoners group I work in was invited to attend a conference hosted by Cosite Na n-Iarchime as part of its nation building programme. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) supported the conference and provided a speaker, Peter Bunting. The Irish Labour History Society sent one as well, Sean Redmond. Entitled ‘Barriers To Social And Economic Inclusion’, the ostensible purpose of the day’s event was to encourage the trade union movement to play a more active role in removing the trip wires that strew the path of ex-political prisoners. In reality it was more about attitudinising to the speakers. And the conference title was a puzzling one. One of the people who attended it had previously pointed out how Coiste had been a barrier to his economic inclusion. One of its leading figures had apparently suggested to Tommy Gorman’s then employer that Gorman should not be employed in any project involving former prisoners because he wrote articles that posed awkward questions for the peace process. And why should he not pose difficult questions? Is Coiste concerned that it might be made to feel uncomfortable if republican voices query the purpose behind its demand for the lifting of bans preventing its members from serving as cops? A radical cop is as rare as a black member of the Ku Klux Klan. The more questions the better.

Coiste is the group which represents the bulk of former political prisoners, and the synchronisation of its outlook with Sinn Fein's operates as smoothly as clockwork. Given Sinn Fein's inexorable move toward the political right and the wholly accommodating approach displayed to capital by the party president at a Dublin meeting with the Irish business class last month, I wondered how Coiste would square that with its professed interest in trade unionism. Would it side with business or the unions? As Sinn Fein itself had previously backed bad business practice against legitimate concerns of workers, the upcoming discussion had the potential to prove instructive.

For republicans it is an article of faith that we stand to the left of the trade union movement which is supposedly led by right leaning bureaucrats. Joe Bowers, who chaired Thursday’s conference, never struck me as someone hewn from Tory stone but I was prepared to be persuaded to the contrary. As it worked out, if Bowers had a case to answer, he was not going to face judgement that day. Little time had elapsed before it became apparent that H-Block radicalism may have been to the left of everything but out here the order of things had been subverted. Much has been made of the vaunted H-Block library but it seems that very little in the books made its way to the outside or if it did it bypassed Sevastopol Street en route to the Linenhall Library, where the radicalism of the pages were stamped ‘embargoed until Ireland is united. Labour must wait.’

When Peter Bunting pointed out that one of the tasks that the trade union movement had to tackle in West Belfast was the practices of the firm that built the Sinn Fein office at Sevastopol Street, the delusional drivel that passes for left wing sentiment amongst some former prisoners was cruelly exposed. Reviled throughout the city for its abominable pay and conditions, the firm in question has prospered on the labour of the poorest sections of West Belfast, including ex-prisoners. When myself and Brendan Hughes went on site a few years ago to interview a former republican prisoner we were smuggled into a kitchen of a house positioned furthest away from the panoptical gaze of the site foreman. A former cellmate of my own, he was nervous as he rattled off a litany of malpractices. We were amazed. Here was a man that had come through the blanket protest, and probably held the record for time spent on the punishment wing long after the protest had ended for being ‘disruptive.’ Yet sheer economic necessity had so raised the spectre of the sack, that he was reduced to meeting fellow republicans surreptitiously in a back kitchen. He who confronted the screws at every possible opportunity could not face a destitute family. He can hardly be scorned for that. Others, rather than he, were the cause of his letdown.

An Phoblacht/Republican News suppressed the piece that myself and Brendan Hughes submitted and replaced it with a toothless one of their own. The opposition to our article from within Sinn Fein, particularly at Belfast City Council level, was formidable. And the councillors were backed in their stand by one of the most senior party national leadership figures. No surprise, really, that we never hear either An Phoblacht/Republican News or its sister paper, Andersonstown News demand an inquiry into the exploitative practices the favoured firm has pursued. Would that have something to do with the fact that the firm built both the Andersonstown News premises and Sinn Fein's Sevastopol Street HQ while the owners of both were fully aware of the exploitative practices ruthlessly pursued by its management?

If the trade union movement really wants to work to remove barriers to ex-prisoners, then Peter Bunting and Joe Bowers might consider establishing an educational trust that would help those ex-prisoners not yet able to see that the party they align with and the news paper proprietors they keep in riches, in their support for the anti-union Rachmans of the construction industry, are an integral part of the system of economic exploitation in West Belfast.

Trade unions helping republicans to become radical. That’s a turn up for the books.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

13 May 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


The 1934 Republican Congress: Broad Front or Narrow Retreat?
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Better an Honest Socialist than a Lying Republican
Dolours Price


The Angrytown News presents: SinnAid
A Community Response

Jimmy Sands


No Minimum Wage Here
Anthony McIntyre


Further Serious Abuses of Republican POWS
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA


Free Tibet?
Liam O Ruairc


Thoughts on the November Elections
Chrissie McGlinchey


The Letters page has been updated.


10 May 2004


War Crimes
Anthony McIntyre


Address given by IRSP Ard Comhairle Terry Harkin to Fringe Meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party
Terry Harkin


A Guiding Light Falls on Ramallah
Sam Bahour


An Occupation That Creates Children Willing To Die
Leah Tsemel


Dave Hann,
co-author "No Retreat"
Connolly Books

AFA Ireland




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