Northern Ireland - For Workers' Unity
Date:1974
Organisation:Militant
Author:Peter Hunt (see Peter Hadden)
Contributor:Peter Taaffe
View: View Document
Discuss:Comments on this document
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

13th December 2010

This document, written by Peter Hadden of Militant, is a fascinating reply to a Workers’ Association Pamphlet. As it notes, in the original WA leaflet there was a proposal to establish an Ulster Trade Union Congress ‘seperate from the ICTU and the British TUC.

It states:

This pamphlet is a reply to one such group [proposing a UTUC]…

It also notes…

The WA have an identical position to that of another group, the British and Irish Communist Organisation. No differences appear betwen the material of these groups. Therefore this pamphlet treats them as identical. One section deals with the broader ideas of these tendencies and the implications of these idea.

It continues:

… This work is not intended merely as an answer to the B&ICO and WA. Sectarianism in NI Has had a shattering effect on the Labour Movement. The Ulster TUC proposal can only serve to worsen this effect. However, just to discard this idea is not enough. It is necessary to work out the ways and means by which flash can be once again put on the Northern Irish TU movement. In rejecting the totally false theories and proposals of the WA, this pamphlet seeks also to provide a positive alternative - a set of class ideas and demands around which the might of Organsed Labour could be brought to the fore.

One aspect that is very interesting is how hostile Militant is to B&ICO/WA.

It argues that:

The aim of the [WA] pamphlet is not to improve the structure of the trade unions in NI, as has been suggested by some, but is to smear the leadership of the TU Movement as ‘republican’ and thereby help discredit them.

It continues:

Many of the pamphlet’s arguments are hair raising indeed! The leaders of the NIC are tried and convicted of the above ‘offence’ on ‘grounds’ which only serve to expose the lack of any class understanding on the part of the Workers Association. The NIC committed such ‘republican’ crimes as refusing to participate in the jubilee celebrations to mark the fifty years of the Northern Ireland state. After fifty years of unemployment and low wages for many of their members what were the trade unions supposed to celebrate? But this action was a symptom of a much more heinous crime! The NIC actually back the demand for civil rights in NI!

And it goes on to say…

Civil Rights, according to the WA was ‘promoted by the republican movement with the objective of weakening internal and international support for the NI Admistration prior to its overthrow’ (P.4). Why socialists should support and defend the rotten tory state and administration in NI we are not told.

Consider the following:

From the erudite thinkers who penned this pamphlet we learn little new about N.I. History. More accurately we find re-invoked the lies and myths about the nature of the N.I. State which for too long the Unionist hierarchy were able to spread. The Civil Rights movement slashed through the web of unionist mythology with facts. Now we find the spider of B&IC and the WA busily at work with its theoretical needle attempting to repair the damage.

There’s far too much material of considerable interest to do justice in a brief introduction such as this. Fortunately the document is highly readable and well worth the effort.

Here are some Workers Association leaflets already in the Archive. The analysis in the Militant document provides a fascinating overview of its own position in regard to Northern Ireland at this point in time. It also perhaps explains later perceptions of B&ICO.

By the way, I can’t recall who, if anyone, sent this to the Archive. Drop me a line and I’ll credit you.

There’s also a text version of this available here , but perhaps the printed version of a document gives a better sense of both itself and the time.

More from Militant

Militant in the archive


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  • By: toland Thu, 16 Dec 2010 16:33:26

    The Special Powers Act was not directed at Catholics anymore than the Offences against the State Act in the South was. both acts sought to defend the respective states against armed attack from within. They might not have been just but neither was sectarian
    The Loyalist strike was not against a moderate reform package. It was against the Council of Ireland which was seen as a sell-out of the Union

    Reply on the CLR

  • By: Joe Thu, 16 Dec 2010 16:51:45

    “There is no ‘ethnic’ divide in Ireland”.

    I don’t agree. I believe that the nationalists and unionists in NI are two distinct ethnic groups. We know, do we not, that the unionists came to Ireland in the 17th century. They didn’t integrate with the native population at the time or since. The two communities remained separate while living side by side in the same area. I would suggest that Serb/Croat thing would be similar – same language (as far as I know), living side by side, covering a broad area, different religions – but everyone knows whether they are a Serb or a Croat, like everyone in NI knows which “ethnic group” they belong to.

    “I believe it is perfectly possible to both a sincere unionist and a socialist, and I would be interested to hear who agrees with me on this?”

    I agree with you 100% on this SoS. We had a thread on here some time back in which I “described” this socialist unionist. It was Sam McAughtry – only half joking, there were plenty more and potentially about a million of them.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:00:45

    Except that it was used in an explicitly sectarian fashion and was part of an overall societal dynamic that saw Nationalists as inherently other.

    re Sunningdale, hmmm… not so sure most Unoinists at the time if I recall the polling data were willing to go for power sharing, which was a key aspect of your moderate reform package. Indeed the political power of those most staunchly opposed merely increased across the decade.

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  • By: sonofstan Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:01:09

    The unionists came to Ireland in the 17th c.? before there was even a union? they must be very old at this stage….

    Seriously, people may ‘know’ what ethnic group they belong to, but that’s hardly an index of any objective dstinction. People ‘know’ all sorts of thing about themselves that are rarely supported by evidence.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:02:16

    Thing is that that also implies that one can be a socialist and a nationalist, equally sincerely, or a republican and a socialist, given that unoinism is as much a national identity as nationalism/republicanism, which by the way is a proposition I tend to agree with though I also think LATC’s point is correct that it gets messy and has problematicals not merely in terms of internationalism, but also in how it operates on the ground as regards different communities.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:04:21

    1. The term ‘trade union defence forces’ do not equate to armed paramilitary groups – it applies specifically to the establishment of democratic community and trade union groups who acted in the cross-community defence of areas and workplaces from threatened sectarian attack. The best example is the one quoted of the workers in the shipyards organising to prevent sectarian attacks against Catholic workers in the shipyards. This is not to say that, if necessary, these groups should not be armed – but that the primary factor was that these groups should under the direct democratic control of communities and/or workplace.

    Thanks for responding JRG. Even taking this more limited definition of TUDF’s Liam Kelly’s article in the History Ireland certainly doesn’t indicate that the events in the shipyards constituted anything like ‘trade union defence forces’. There was a meeting `at Harland & Wolff where a resolution was passed ‘expressing the workers’ determination to maintain the peace’. Nothing more, certainly no organised unit.
    In the Mallusk, Michelin plant instance Kelly mentions an ad hoc group, but what that group did, if anything else, is not mentioned. Implicit in the text it seems to have been another resolution that no trouble would occur.
    2. The later reference to these groups needing to go on the ‘offensive’ – this spectifically means a ‘political offensive’ against the paramilitaries, not an ‘armed offensive’.
    The quote from 1991 is also very clear. It uses the word ‘offensive’ with no qualification. You are now adding a suffix in order to change the interpretation. The very title ‘trade union defence force’ is suggestive but what on earth does it all mean?

    3. In the aftermath of the arrival of the British troops in North the troops patrolled areas of Belfast and Derry and no where else. It was inevitable that local groups would spring up all over the North to counter-act the paramilitaries (loyalist in the main). Some involved significant groups of people – others no more than a handful. Many were directly under the control of Republicans (these is the main were not ‘cross-community’) others were outside their control. I have seen references to several dozen of these groups (I will have to root through my records to find the exact references and I do not have the time now). If I remember correctly there was a signifcant group in Andersonstown that started initially outside of republican control and existed for a short period. Much of the information was passed to me from a hadnful of people who were involved in these groups and subsequently joined the Militant. You will find very lettle record of these groups as it is not something the establishment, republicans or loyalists have an interest in promoting.
    The history of CESA etc is well-rehearsed at this stage, but none of those groups appear to have had any trade union involvement and bar some of the peace groups mentioned in Kelly’s article (which appear to have had effectively clerical involvement) most seem to have been essentially communitarian, ie. aligning with one community or another. If you can shed further light on this that would be great, but the obvious conclusion is that no TU inspired groups existed, that the peace groups could hardly be termed class based and that what groups there were vanished fairly sharpish.
    As for the point about the establishment, well, yes and no. But good historians don’t cleave to establishment views and there’s been such a broad range of analysis from people far beyond the categories of republican or loyalist that I’d be very cautious about arguing such a point.
    4. I never stated that these groups “were suppressed ‘primarily’ by Republican groups” as WbS has claimed. I stated that the primary reason for their demise was the failure of the trade unions to actively support them (and in some cases it appears they actively undermined them). Republican paramilitaries did in some areas take them over (again Andersonstown was one if I recall correctly).

    You said precisely: the active efforts of (primarily republican) paramilitaries to either dismantle them or take them over.
    Hard not to take away from that that there was some form of suppression. The word ‘dismantle’ in particular. As for their demise being due to the failure of trade unions to actively support them, well perhaps. I don’t know. To date I haven’t given any opinion on these groups – such as they are – one way or another but one could hazard that given the balance of forces and history in the society cross community initiatives amongst the working class were always going to find it challenging. John Dennis though has a point, any trade union defence force in reality would have to face down paramilitaries of either hue because the latter would inevitably seek to impose their will on such ‘forces’. It would certainly need some defensive aspect and it’s impossible to conceive of that without the danger of further violence. In the sectarian tinderbox of the North such a notion seems unfeasible. Given some of what happened to the much more emollient ‘Peace People’ in the latter part of the 1970s where despite a completely unarmed approach they came under huge pressure and antagonism JD may have a point about the huge dangers to union members if they engaged in such activities. It may also overstate the influence of the unions. To their credit they argued for worker unity but that call wasn’t exactly taken up with gusto much of the time.
    There’s a further point, even what limited cooperation there was between communities didn’t work in some very important places. Kelly in History Ireland makes the point that i most notably in Clonard on 15 August, just before that very evening Bombay Street was burned down there was a meeting of Protestant and Catholics in a Peace Committee.
    5. The Militant has consistantly stressed the fact that the Catholic community were subjected to discrimination in the North. However, the Militant has also consistantly argued that this discrimination could never be eliminated through promoting republicanism or on the basis of capitalism. This then poses the question of how you eliminate the presence of imperialism and capitalism on this island – something the Militant and the SP has consistantly argued is only possible on the basis of worker unity.

    As I stated before, I have no argument at all with Militant’s stance on these issues. In many respects much of what they argued was sane, though arguably over optimistic in terms of what they appeared to believe achievable. In relation to their view of Republicanism, again, that’s fine, I differ on that in some respects but the Militant and later SP view has been coherent and consistent.

    But what is important is to examine what actually happened at any given point rather than what we might hope happened. To argue that at best, if they existed at all, tiny manifestations of workers unity (the closest of which appear to be say H&W and Michelin and these were restricted to very specific workplaces – hugely admirable but utterly limited), are indicative of anything very much at all is to fall into the trap of pitting hope over actuality.
    Republican or socialist, or both, that’s not useful.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:07:04

    Mark P. Odd? How so? You offer a long comment, but never provide an answer as to how my previous contribution was ‘odd’.

    The original piece, to repeat myself, had one contribution from one individual, whose political provenance is unknown, though later comments don’t seem to particularly indicate any particular ‘left Republican’ analysis, but some reasonable points. But from that you generate a tapestry of the ‘stupidity’ of left Republicans.

    I’m a left Republican, so is Garibaldy, so are a number of contributors and commentators to this site, and the palpable lack of respect for our politics from your quarter, despite the respectful hearing and place we give to your political current and indeed yourself is dispiriting in the extreme.

    There is no central disagreement. Neither Garibaldy nor myself have offered any opinion on unity with working class Protestants whatsoever (though clue, we think it’s a good thing), and it’s completely diversionary to suggest we have. You’re now roping in comments (ie those of Jim M) entirely external to the central discussion, those being focussed on the comments Jolly Red Giant made about ‘trade union and community based defense forces’

    Some of us, with a degree of knowledge of this history were understandably intrigued by same and sought clarification given that our understanding was that no such forces existed or existed in such sketchy form as to be an irrelevancy.

    All the rest of your analysis about working class Protestants and/or Unionists is entirely irrelevant to that point.

    As for the 2% of material online, that too is rather irrelevant, I can go to the Left Archive and pull down, well, the two copies of Militant from 1972, also very close in to the genesis of the conflict, and see that there’s no mention there either of these ‘forces’. Quite the opposite, in a piece on the NILP and its failings in 1969 once more there’s no mention at all of such forces – in the main article the most that is conceded is that the working class was prepared to work together or some such.

    In Militant Irish Special No1 from 1972 there’s a heading about ‘Joint Committees’ but when one reads the text it’s clear they’re not discussing any sort of TU forces but instead are talking about the groups which struck up ie small ‘peace groups’ and CESA like formations, neither of which come under the original definition offered by JRG and in any case simply don’t fit the bill as being exclusively cross working class/trade union.

    Again, far from the contentions orginally made.

    I’d be interested if you could point to the link to this workers defence group leaflet. I’ve done a bit of digging for this thread so given your reference to it it would be useful to see.

    More generally, nothing. There’s simply no evidence for what you suggest about defence groups. The closest that I can see are meetings in two workplaces H&W and the Michelin factory in Mallusk, both referenced in Liam Kelly’s History Ireland piece in July/August 2009 which once more are simply not the same thing.

    In other words the historical analysis JRG presented and which you have sort of kind of defended is unsustainable by the facts presented so far.

    Now all that would be fine, it’s a fairly minor issue, but the hostility displayed to ‘left Republicans’ is well over the top.

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Thu, 16 Dec 2010 17:35:44

    “The unionists came to Ireland in the 17th c.? before there was even a union? they must be very old at this stage”
    To refer to pre Act of Union” Ireland as somewhat independent is sort of bizarre. I will avoid a comparison.
    Nationalism tends to divide between ethnically based and state based.
    I prefer to think of it being a dynamic formation in Ireland. Sort of Tones project of uniting and leaving behind the sectarian repression and looking forward to unity of Defenders and the equivalent against a common enemny.

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  • By: shane Thu, 16 Dec 2010 19:36:24

    “It was against the Council of Ireland which was seen as a sell-out of the Union”

    Funnily enough the Government of Ireland Act (which the Unionists were so opposed to repealing) envisaged a Council of Ireland.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Thu, 16 Dec 2010 19:53:05

    This I had forgotten Shane. You’re entirely correct.

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  • By: Jolly Red Giant Thu, 16 Dec 2010 22:17:13

    A couple of points –

    1. John – yes the pamphlet was written in 1974. You claimed that the establishment of community and/or trade union groups to defend communities and workplaces from attack was not a realistic suggestion. I pointed out that it was something that did happen in the early stages of the Troubles.

    2. Garibaldy – I never suggested that all of the groups that sprang up in different parts of the North were ‘trade union defence groups’ – they were of a wide variety and character. Republicans organised groups to defend Catholic areas – but in a whole host of areas cross-community groups and workplace groups were established, some ‘vigilante’ in character, some with a local trade union base, some with a local community base, many organised by local meetings.

    3. WbS – In relation to ‘going on the offensive’ – in all honesty – think back on the forty year history of the Militant/SP and tell me if there was ever a single occasion where the Militant argued that the paramilitaries whould be taken on at their own game? You give a one line quote from a document (stating which document would be a help) – but either way, I am pretty sure that the main argument of the document would have been how to politically defeat imperialism, capitalism and sectarianism.

    As regards this ‘(primarliy) Republican’ comment – I was referring to the fact that many groups were taken over or dismantled by paramilitaries – some by loyalists (who mainly ‘dismantled’) but ‘primarily’ Republican (who mainly ‘took over’).

    Over the past forty years the trade union movement has been noticable for its failure to engage in any activity that could be described as ‘political’ and if you know anything about the Militant you will know that it has consistantly argued that it was vital that the trade unions became politically active.

    As for any trade union defence group ‘facing down the paramilitaries’ – this again has happened on numerous occasions. Over the 35 years of the Troubles workers regularly had to engage in strike action against threats, intimidation and violence from paramilitaries (from both sides of the sectarian divide). Indeed it was the ‘facing down’ of the paramilitaries on many occasions that prevented a major escalation of the conflict.

    Final point – in order for such a ‘trade union defence force’ to be successful it would require the mass mobilisation of working class people from both communities through demonstrations, meetings, rallies etc to organise such bodies – they would not and could not operate in isolation from the movement as a whole. One of the primary reasons for support for the paramilitaries on both sides is their claim to ‘defend their communities’ from attack. If the trade union movement could demonstrate that it could defend all communities on a cross-community basis then one of the main planks of support for the paramilitaries would vanish overnight.

    This is not to say that the paramilitaries would disappear – but they would be isolated within the Catholic and Protestant communities and their actions would be far easier to combat than they are now.

    The history of the North is rich with examples of working class people from both communities coming together to protect and defend their class interests. There are ample examples of workers from both sides of the community engaging in strike action and defeating attempts to split them along sectarian lines. The bigots expend every ounce of energy to derail this unity becauses it poses a direct threat to their power and position and by extention to capitalism and imperialism. The key to building such unity in the North is the development of a strong vibrant and democratic left-wing trade union movement capable of engaging in political activity on a class basis and not being afraid of taking on the established sectarian forces on both sides.

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  • By: Garibaldy Fri, 17 Dec 2010 00:04:41

    “2. Garibaldy – I never suggested that all of the groups that sprang up in different parts of the North were ‘trade union defence groups’ – they were of a wide variety and character. Republicans organised groups to defend Catholic areas – but in a whole host of areas cross-community groups and workplace groups were established, some ‘vigilante’ in character, some with a local trade union base, some with a local community base, many organised by local meetings.”

    I hadn’t meant to suggest that you had characterised all these groups in this way. It seemed fairly clear that you were excluding certain types by the definition that was given. I’m also not sure that I used the phrase “trade union defence groups”, which you put in quotation marks, in the comment you are responding to.

    There is a claim being made that in “a whole host of areas cross-community groups and workplace groups were established”. WBS has already, drawing on an article described as giving possible examples, offered evidence to question the interpretation of a specific instance given here, at H&W, while I have offered some reasons that the reference to a group in Andersonstown might be open to a different interpretation (the only specific instances given as far as I can see, although Mark P has referred to having seen reference to another specific instance).

    At this point it is kind of hard to see how we can judge the character of these groups being referred to unless we have specific details. If these groups were widespread, then their disappearance from the record would indeed be a mystery, especially given the renewed interest in this period because of the recent anniversaries, never mind the tendency of people recently to offer their personal histories. Given that there isn’t much concrete evidence coming forward for these types of groups being widespread, it’s no surprise that people are sceptical, especially when we have so much evidence for the vigilante groups, CESA, CDCs etc.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Fri, 17 Dec 2010 08:15:48

    3. WbS – In relation to ‘going on the offensive’ – in all honesty – think back on the forty year history of the Militant/SP and tell me if there was ever a single occasion where the Militant argued that the paramilitaries whould be taken on at their own game? You give a one line quote from a document (stating which document would be a help) – but either way, I am pretty sure that the main argument of the document would have been how to politically defeat imperialism, capitalism and sectarianism.
    As regards this ‘(primarliy) Republican’ comment – I was referring to the fact that many groups were taken over or dismantled by paramilitaries – some by loyalists (who mainly ‘dismantled’) but ‘primarily’ Republican (who mainly ‘took over’).
    Over the past forty years the trade union movement has been noticable for its failure to engage in any activity that could be described as ‘political’ and if you know anything about the Militant you will know that it has consistantly argued that it was vital that the trade unions became politically active.

    I agree to an extent, and yet, and yet. What is a little concerning – not a lot, let’s not overstate this, is that the term ‘going on the offensive’ was used with no qualification, and this in relation to Northern Ireland. Conor gives details on the document in the link above. And John Dennis is correct, the very concept of trade union forces is problematic in terms of implementation.

    That you have to – understandably – qualify the sentence re dismantling etc, sort of demonstrates my earlier point about how tricky all this is. But remember, you originally didn’t make any qualification between loyalists and republicans and it’s only at this point that you do.
    This leads to an obvious problem in that we can’t be expected to read statements and continually hope that they’ll be subsequently qualified to the satisfaction of reader or writer.

    I wonder though are you correct that ‘facing down’ by the unions prevented a major escalation of the conflict. Again, the historical record on this seems spotty.
    We also have the opposite dynamic where distorted mobilisations exacerbated it as in the aftermath of Sunningdale during the UWC, which emulated the forms of trade union and working class activity in something approaching a parody of them but which by locking successfully into that the ‘forms’ of that activity was highly effective in preventing progressive movement (which might also explain the caution of the unions subsequently, though prior to that arguably they could have tried to do more).

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  • By: Dr. X Fri, 17 Dec 2010 09:26:49

    >>>For a start there was a slogan in one strike in the SAs mines in I think the 20s which was “Workers of teh world unite and keep SA white”.

    Which didn’t save them from being bombed from the air by the Royal South African Air Force.

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  • By: Dr. X Fri, 17 Dec 2010 09:42:37

    Has anyone been to the 1641 Depositions exhibit in TCD? I didn’t realise that the statements of survivors of the massacres were part of a wider discourse of what I suppose we have to call ‘martyrology’ in the sixteenth century – and that in those days the religious identity was more important than the ethnonational one.

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  • By: Joe Fri, 17 Dec 2010 10:27:11

    I disagree completely. I met a bloke from the Shankill years ago. We discussed nationality. He said to me that his grandad brought him up to tell the truth. So whenever he was asked what his nationality was he answered “British”. He knows.
    I’m Irish. I know. But a study of the genetic make-up of the indigenous peoples of Britain and Ireland has found that there’s little or nothing to distinguish any of them from the rest.
    Tell me I’m British or tell that bloke from the Shankill that he’s not and you’ll get the same thing from each of us – an objective box in the mouth.

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  • By: sonofstan Fri, 17 Dec 2010 11:53:00

    Well yes and no…

    Obviously, as you say, and I agree, national identity is 90+% a matter of ‘being able to say who you are’ – I’m Irish, and in this regard I’m fairly certain I will remain so, but I would, as I think would a fairly large proportion of Irish people, be entitled to a British passport, if I so desired. The point is, there is, often, some element of choice, tempered by circumstance here.

    But now take another ‘marker’ of identity – religion. I was baptised, communed and confirmed, and as far as the RCC is concerned, I’m probably a catholic, but as far as I’m concerned I’m certainly not, and I would fight to the last ditch any attempt to include me. Still, though, what I know of religion and religious thought is certainly based on that upbringing, and the ability of the catholic church to annoy me more than anyone else probably attests to the fact that in some highly mediated way, catholicism is still part of my identity.

    But my core point above was that the idea of ‘ethnic’ identity brings a whole new discourse of exclusion and privilege with it, and this is why I don’t like people using the idea of ‘ethnic’ identity when they simply mean national identity, which works the way you say.

    It would be possible for me – as it is for your friend in Belfast – to pass as British: people might notice the accent, and so on, but I could explain that I grew up in Ireland and so on, but that I’d always considered myself ‘British’ – I might or might not get away with it in all circumstances, but its not absurd to imagine. And similarly, immigrants – and their offspring – to the UK from, Asia and the Caribbean can ‘decide’ to be British, and while Tory backwoodsmen and racists might dispute their right to it, it’s generally acceptable as a self- ascriptive property.

    Now try being black in the US or SA (or the UK) and ‘pass’ as white….that’s a whole different level of exclusion and level of determinate identity formation. Which is why I would reserve the term ‘ethnic’ for political and social exclusions and conflicts and identity formation based on the kind of membranes that are not so easily traversed or negotiated.

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  • By: Joe Fri, 17 Dec 2010 12:46:30

    Cheers SoS. Yes, it is complicated and maybe I elided ethnic and national.
    Funnily enough, the chap I mentioned from the Shankill – I worked with him in Holland during a student summer about 30 years ago. Another chap in the factory was from Dublin, a very plummy Protestant going to Trinity. We all got on and the Belfast lad was fascinated – “I knew there were Protestants in the south but I never thought I’d meet one”. The funny thing was yer man from Belfast used to get hassled by the English police at airports etc whereas the lad from Dublin would sail through as the police recognised a member of the ruling class when they heard one.

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  • By: Starkadder Sat, 18 Dec 2010 00:17:16

    On the subject of the proposed Ulster Trade Union
    Congress, I believe this idea was later raised during the 1977 United Unionist Action Council
    (which the B&ICO also supported, if memory serves
    me right).

    Ian Adamson discussed the UTUC idea briefly in his 1987 book “The identity of Ulster”.

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