Trade unions and the ‘Troubles’: remembering when workers stood united.

By Kevin Henry

‘While almost every petrol bomb thrown, every bullet fired around the Shankill, Falls and Ardoyne has been recorded, analysed and reanalysed, the stinting endeavours of working class people in East Belfast, North and West Belfast and many other areas to physically halt the bigots have gone unrecorded and largely ignored by history.’[1]

This striking observation was made by the Marxist writer and activist, Peter Hadden, in his book Common History, Common Struggle; a work which I helped to edit for publication (alongside other Hadden texts) after the author’s death in 2010. Peter wrote this book – which focuses on the early years of the ‘Troubles’ – not so much with academics in mind, but for activists. Yet I think those of us researching the ‘Troubles’ should make a point of reading this book: it documents so many of those ‘unrecorded and largely ignored’ events, thereby providing us with different pieces of the historical puzzle, and so enhancing our understanding of the conflict.

In the above citation, Peter was specifically referring to the response, evident in many working-class communities, to the sectarian violence and pogroms that characterised the early years of the ‘Troubles’, leading to massive displacement of people. With some exceptions, there has been little research into the Peace Committees generated during this phase of the conflict. Significantly, these were typically cross-community in character. Indeed, they were often initiated by trade union and labour movement activists, including the NI Labour MP, David Bleakley. The Belfast Trades Council annual report for 1969 states that ‘people in practically all areas of the city formed their Peace Committees composed of Catholics and Protestants.’ That might be somewhat of an exaggeration, but these committees did exist; were widespread; and, importantly, exerted influence. When loyalists issued ‘get out or be burnt out’ threats against Catholic families living in the largely Protestant working-class areas of East Belfast, local Peace Committee activists responded with leaflets put through Catholic residents’ doors saying ‘stay put, we will protect you’. Similarly, joint Catholic and Protestant patrol groups operated in the Alliance Avenue part of Ardoyne, the Grosvenor Road area, the Docks area, and many other parts of Belfast. Sadly, such actions didn’t stop the violence. Yet they did help to hold it back and to stop the spread to other areas. Importantly, they demonstrated that there were sections of the population, Catholic and Protestant, prepared to stand against violence.[2]

Peter could have been referring to other events that he deals with in his books. Many of us will know of the horrors of the Kingsmill massacre: members of the Provisional IRA killed 11 Protestant workers in response to loyalists having attacked two Catholic families and killed six people in the Reavey/O’Dowd murders. What is less discussed, however, is the fact that localised strikes took place in response to these atrocities. The Newry Trades Council immediately called a strike which closed most of the factories and workplaces of the town and brought thousands onto the streets to protest against the killings. In the Lurgan-Portadown area, shop stewards from the largest local employer, the Goodyear factory, also took the initiative, coming together with other shop stewards to call a strike. Seven thousand workers marched in Lurgan. These trade unionists took the initiative from a precedent set earlier that month: when the Provisional IRA killed two businessmen in Derry, the Trades Council organised a protest of 5,000 in response. The documentary, Unquiet Graves (2018), highlights that loyalists planned to ‘retaliate’ for Kingsmill, including targeting a primary school. This didn’t happen. An important reason for this, in my view, was the massive opposition to so-called tit-for-tat killings, not least within the communities that paramilitaries hailed from. Trade unionists shared this opposition and, crucially, gave it powerful expression via strike action and mass protests.

There are countless examples of such strikes, which played an important role in cutting across and preventing tit-for-tat killings. The last years of the ‘Troubles’ saw many blatantly sectarian atrocities, but these also provoked extremely significant, trade union-organised responses. In January 1992, for example, an IRA bomb killed eight Protestant workers at Teebane in Mid-Ulster. The local Trades Council organised a local general strike. This saw thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers join mass rallies. Just weeks later, the Sean Graham shootings occurred ˗ members of the UDA opened fire on a bookmakers in the Lower Ormeau Road killing five Catholics, supposedly in retaliation for Teebane. The response was a 20,000-strong protest rally, organised by the Trade Unions, at Belfast City Hall. In 1993, when the IRA exploded a bomb in Shankill killing 10 people, workers in the Shorts factory, Catholics and Protestants, dropped tools and marched to the site. This was followed by an estimated 75,000-strong mass protest across 15 towns in the North following the horrific Greysteel massacre.[3] Admittedly, scholars have paid slightly more attention to this period; one going so far as to contend that the trade unions ‘came to the rescue’ of the fledgling peace process.[4]

In general, however, the fact that these events are not remembered and commemorated creates a distorted view of what actually happened during the ‘Troubles’. For a significant section of the population, Belfast’s shipyards are sites which evoke the image of a staunchly loyalist workforce. This association predates the ‘Troubles’, of course: many remember the pogroms in 1920, when Catholic trade unionists were expelled from the shipyards. What is mostly forgotten is that one year previously, workers in Harland & Wolff took part in a month-long engineering strike which brought Belfast to a halt, uniting working-class people in the fight for a 44-hour week. The same applies to the ‘Troubles’: people will have memories of the time that shipyard workers joined loyalist demonstrations, such as during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in May 1974 (which brought down the so-called Sunningdale Executive), or when they joined protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Almost completely forgotten, however, are the times that workers refused to endorse such stoppages. An key example of this occurred in 1977. Ian Paisley and others tried to replicate the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, as part of their campaign to demand that the state take a harder line against the Provisional IRA. Trade unionists, including Sandy Scott, the senior shop steward, spoke at a mass meeting of shipyard workers and argued against workers engaging in Paisley’s campaign. They voted to reject joining such actions. Workers in other strategically important workplaces, including power-plants, did likewise.    

All the more startling, arguably, is the amnesia with regard to the action of shipyard workers 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. ‘If we act as workers, irrespective of our religion, we can hope for an expansion in work opportunities and a better life’, as Sandy Scott argued.[5] A resolution in opposition to sectarian violence was unanimously passed. The shop stewards then even visited the homes of Catholic shipyard workers, successfully appealing to them to return to work. At the same time, Paisley was only able to mobilise 180 out of 8,000 workers to support his rallies. Later in the ‘Troubles’, when Maurice O’Kane, a Catholic welder, was murdered by the UVF in Harland & Wolff in 1994, shop stewards immediately called thousands of workers out and left the shipyard empty.

In a short article, naturally there is an element of ‘bending the stick’ so as to emphasise forgotten events. My intention is not to ignore complicating factors: the trade union movement could have done more. In fact, this is one of Hadden’s key arguments in Common History, Common Struggle. Indeed, at the time, socialists within the Trade Unions also argued that the unions needed to take principled stands, and not simply to ignore contentious issue such as repression. The actions that I have documented were often generated by the rank and file, or the shop stewards layer of the unions, rather than by trade union leaders. At times, the leadership actively opposed such strikes being organised, insisting that trade unions should keep out of politics. The movement also frequently came under pressure which risked splitting it on sectarian lines, most notably after the Ulster Workers’ Council stoppage when some argued for an ‘Ulster TUC’ and a break with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

But it was on the basis of conscious effort that trade union unity was maintained. Trade unionists often proudly boast that during the ‘Troubles’ not one strike, involving both Catholic and Protestant workers, was broken as a result of sectarianism. As well as the actions that I have focused on here, trade unionists also brought workers together across the sectarian divide to oppose attacks on workers during the worst periods of sectarian division. For those researching the ‘Troubles’ this is surely something worthy of study; for today’s trade unionists it should be a point of inspiration.

(Image: with the kind permission of Herald Publication)

Kevin Henry is currently studying a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Ulster. As a Socialist Party organiser, he writes regularly on historical and contemporary events in Northern Ireland, particularly those related to the labour and trade union movement. As mentioned in the article, he was a member of the team that edited Peter Hadden’s Common History, Common Struggle after Hadden’s death in 2010 and which has subsequently republished other works by him, including Divide and Rule and Troubled Times. Much of the content of this article is derived from these works.


[1] P. Hadden, Common History, Common Struggle (Herald Publication, 2017), p. 267.

[2] One exception is Liam Kelly’s doctoral monograph. He also considered the Peace Committees in this article for History Ireland: https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/one-remarkable-fact-why-most-of-belfast-remained-at-peace/

[3] P. Hadden, Beyond the Troubles (Herald Publication, 1994). Available online at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/hadden/1994/beyond/ch9.htm

[4] R. Wilson, ‘From Violence to Intolerance: Ethno-Nationalism and the Crowding Out of Civic Life’, in C. Farrington, Global Change, Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process (London, 2008).

[5] Hadden, Common History, Common Struggle, p. 269.


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