Events in August 1969 are often considered to mark the start of the Troubles. In an eruption of violence, seven people were killed and 750 injured. 1,500 Catholic and 300 Protestant families were driven from their homes. British troops came on the streets and were to remain there for more than a quarter of a century.

Rise of the labour movement

Looking back from the vantage point of 2019, very few people are aware that these events could have been avoided. In the years leading up to 1969, there was in fact a tendency for greater mixing of Catholics and Protestants, especially in the workplaces. Trade unionists became better organised and more confident. A political opening for left and socialist ideas resulted, and this was reinforced by the impact of international events. Left political parties and groups were growing, in particular the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). The scale of the NILP’s achievements can be seen in the votes achieved in the 1966 election, when it won 17,650 votes in Belfast East (45.3%) and 19,927 in Belfast North (42.6%).

The authority of the leaderships of the NILP and the trade unions meant that a clear class lead should and could have been provided when the civil rights movement developed in the late 1960s. The leaders abdicated any responsibility, however, and provided no real alternative to the sectarian forces which were flexing their muscles.

Trade unionists lead stand against sectarian violence

Despite this, a key feature of August 1969 was the action of class-conscious activists who prevented conflict on the streets spreading and escalating. The violence was concentrated in particular areas. In many other working-class areas, peace prevailed. The reason for this is that trade union and community activists came onto the streets to maintain calm. In the Dock area of Belfast, for example, streets were sealed off by a joint body of Catholics and Protestants who protected all local residents. While one side of the Ardoyne burned, on the other side in Alliance Avenue, joint vigilante groups were on the streets. In the Grosvenor Road area, close to the Lower Falls where rows of houses had been burned, joint patrols were also established.

A joint anti-sectarian committee was set up in east Belfast which announced plans to organise street patrols with elected leaders and to give “immediate and constant protection” to any family who had been threatened, Its core was made up of working-class people from the area, many of them trade union shop stewards and many members of the NILP.
During previous periods of sectarian strife, the workplaces had become centres of conflict, especially the Harland and Wolff shipyard. What happened in the shipyard in August 1969 would have a decisive effect in all other workplaces. If the Catholic workers were driven out, similar expulsions would likely take place in other factories and events might escalate out of control.

On the suggestion of Sandy Scott, a senior shop steward in the Boilermakers’ Union, it was decided to call a mass meeting of the entire workforce of the shipyard. A resolution was prepared which read: “This mass meeting of shipyard workers calls on the people of Northern Ireland for the immediate restoration of peace throughout the community. We recognise that the continuation of the present civil disorder can only end in economic disaster”. 8,000 workers assembled to hear Scott and other speakers, including the Unionist Minister for Commerce, Roy Bradford. Despite the cross-class make-up of the platform, it was Scott who gave the lead. He argued “if we all act as workers irrespective of our religions we can hope for an expansion in work opportunities and a better life”. The resolution was passed unanimously and the entire workforce walked out on a token strike. That night, Scott and another shop steward toured the barricaded areas of west Belfast and urged Catholic shipyard workers who had been too scared to go to work that day to come back.

Another way was posed

Scott’s lead and the response shown acted as a beacon of light in a difficult period. Unfortunately, however, there was no adequate follow-up and, when no alternative is posed, the forces of sectarianism will come to the fore. One tragic result was that many of the generation of Catholic youth who had come behind the civil rights movement lost hope in the workers’ movement and joined republican paramilitary groups.

The headline of the September 1969 issue of the Militant (the forerunner of this newspaper) called for an armed trade union defence force. This call was not an abstract slogan. An organised trade union force was the only way in which the actions of the sectarian killer gangs could have been countered. If the creation of such a force had been allied with the building of a mass working-class party fighting on socialist policies which could unite Catholic and Protestant workers, history could have taken a very different turn.

by Ciaran Mulholland