Northern Ireland: workers join the international revival of struggles

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On Thursday 18 January there was the largest strike in the history of Northern Ireland.[1] In spite of icy, often sub-zero conditions there were 170,000 workers involved, members of 16 trade unions, making up maybe 80 per cent of the public sector. There were marches and rallies in towns right across the six counties, and across all the sectarian divides that have plagued the working class in Northern Ireland. There were pickets at schools and hospitals, stations and council depots, and many other public buildings. Nearly every school and further education college was closed. All public transport was stopped. The next day, Friday 19, hundreds of transport workers, cleaners, classroom assistants and gritter drivers, were on strike for a second day.

Superficially, the reason for the strike (and the explanation given by parties of the left, right and centre) is all down to the unique status of Northern Ireland. Over the last two years, ever since the election in 2022 in which Sinn Fein won the most seats, the Democratic Unionist Party have ensured that there has been no Assembly and no Executive. Because of this, all pay demands in the public sector have been declared not possible as, according to the British government, only the devolved administration can allow any pay rises. In December the Tories offered £600m for pay in the public sector, all as part of a £3.3bn package, but depending on the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive.

In response to this the DUP have accused Northern Irish Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris of trying to blackmail them, saying the money should be handed over regardless. Meanwhile Sinn Fein say that workers’ can only be satisfied if the Assembly and Executive are re-activated. At rallies on 18 January union leaders were divided between blaming the DUP or the British government or both. While the unions all agreed that the money was there, the reality is that workers are fighting against a system that can’t satisfy their most basic needs.

 Although the strike was very much controlled by the unions, and the different factions of the ruling class are certainly using the political chaos in Northern Ireland to try drag the workers behind their squabbles, this movement has not come out of the blue. In December there were strikes on the whole transport network, buses and trains, on four different days. Before that, in November, there were strikes in the transport sector and by school support staff. It’s true that these were also controlled by the unions, but does show that there is real discontent with the pay levels workers have been enduring. In Britain there have been at least some wage increases, but an effective wage freeze in Northern Ireland has made a bad situation even worse and workers can no longer put up with the effects of the “cost of living crisis”.  The struggles have been undertaken because of a real deterioration in workers’ material conditions, which are under attack in all countries. In this the struggles of workers in Northern Ireland are in line with those in Britain from 2022, and with the subsequent movements in France, the US, Canada and Scandinavia. They are part of a break with the passivity of the previous 30 years, and the potential for further and deeper struggles in the future, in connection with the working class in Eire, mainland Britain, and in Europe.

Car 24/1/24


[1] This obviously excludes the loyalist paramilitary-enforced action of the Ulster Workers’ Council in 1974 – which was not a workers’ strike … and was not led by a workers’ council.


Strikes in Northern Ireland