Harland & Wolff: The hidden history of workers’ struggle

The history of Northern Ireland is often present as simply being of two traditions – nationalism and unionism – in conflict with each other. Almost everything is painted as belonging to one or the other, including the shipyard. It is also true that most things do have a history tainted by sectarianism and this is most certainly true of the shipyards. But there is also another history, one which we see in the shipyards, across Belfast and across Northern Ireland – that is the labour tradition, where working-class people have stood together to fight in their common interests.

One hundred years ago, workers in Harland & Wolff took part in a month-long engineering strike which brought Belfast to a halt. The strike began as result of people in the shipyard organising to fight for a 44-hour week and many of the workers were leaders in the strike. The strike itself showed the potential to unite working-class people across the sectarian divide and their power when they came together.

Fifty years ago, at the start of the Troubles, trade unionists at Harland & Wolff called a mass meeting of the workforce because Catholic workers had not come to work for fear of sectarian attack. At the meeting, senior shop steward Sandy Scott appealed: “If we act as workers, irrespective of our religion, we can hope for an expansion in work opportunities and a better life”. A resolution in opposition to sectarian violence was unanimously passed. The shop stewards then visited the homes of Catholic shipyard workers, successfully appealing to them to return. At the same time Ian Paisley was only able to mobilise 180 out of 8,000 to support his rallies. There are countless untold stories like this that happened during the start of the Troubles and throughout.

This tradition didn’t die when the troubles began. In the 1980s when tens of thousands of workers throughout Northern Ireland struck in defence of the NHS, 2,000 Shorts and shipyard workers joined a 10,000 strong protest in from the Harbour estate in East Belfast. In 1994, When Maurice O’Kane, a Catholic welder, was murdered by the UVF in Harland and Wolff in 1994, shop stewards immediately called thousands of workers out and left the shipyard empty. The shop stewards themselves faced serious threats for this but didn’t buckle. Instead they followed up this action by turning out en-masse to the funeral in an effort to stare down the killers.

The Socialist Party believes it is urgent to rebuild this tradition. That is why we, alongside others, launched Cross-Community Labour Alternative, which won its first councillor in Enniskillen in the recent election. Common struggle of working people is needed to change our society for the better and the trade union movement, which unites 250,000 workers, has a key role to play in this. It is on this basis we can strive to find solutions to the issues that divide our communities. On the basis of the profit-driven system of capitalism, workers will be pitted against each other and, therefore, it is necessary to struggle for a different society – a socialist society.

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