Look back at Workers Party NI conference (including audio)

Table at Workers Party northern conference 2011John Lowry welcomed around 100 delegates and union representatives to the Grosvenor Hall in Belfast. The northern conference of the Workers Party isn’t a policy-setting body.

Lowry said that the party is making preparations for the next local government and Assembly elections to ensure “there is a vibrant socialist alternative”.

About two thirds of attendees are older men. But there are pockets of young/middle aged and a handful of women.

Workers Party northern conference 2011

The past twelve months …

Comrades, friends and guests …

Gerry Grainger began his review of the year by saying that the last twelve months has offered some hope for the Workers Party. They are organisationally stronger, and the party profile has been enhanced.

Gerry Grainger reviews the last 12 months for Workers Party in NI (mp3)

Grainger paused to reflect on the extradition warrant from the US issued six years ago for Sean Garland (Workers Party treasurer). Only acted on when Garland travelled up to Northern Ireland. A Dublin judge’s determination is finally due on November 16. Garland’s wife attended the Workers Party conference in Belfast. The party looked forward to their comrade soon being free to join them in Belfast.

In May, the party ran four candidates in Belfast. They weren’t in a position to offer a bigger campaign. Grainger acknowledged that their share of vote was less than hoped. The main theme of campaign was highlighting ‘sectarianism’, continuing on the 1970s message that ‘sectarianism kills workers’.

The deliberate attempt to boost party’s profile was successful, with representatives and banners appearing at more events, protests and rallies than ever before: May Day rally, City Hospital A&E closure, Cuban Bay of Pigs, Belfast Pride etc.

One delegate commented that while the party was supporting Spanish and Cuban events, they needed to do more in their own communities.

We’ve too many meetings and we don’t do enough ground work.

Another delegate pre-empted the next session and explained:

We need a Workers Party as it recognises good from bad. It recognises the poor and vulnerable. And recognises why the poor and vulnerable will continue to be poor and vulnerable … It’s against the super-rich, but it’s not reckless. The working class need leadership.

Ciaran McGeough answering Why We Need A Workers Party

Why we need a Workers Party?

Ciaran McGeough answered the question of Why we need a Workers Party? (He also spoke too fast to really follow what he was saying!)

Conference session about Why We Need A Workers Party by Ciaran McGeough (mp3)

I spoke to Ciaran during the lunch break and asked him about the party.

Speaking to Ciaran McGeough about his address – Why do we need a Workers Party? (mp3)

Replying to the speech, a delegate went up to the podium and explained:

We have unequal relationships within society. The unequal distribution of power in our society affects the working class the most … The economic power of the middle class damages the working class.

One delegate commented that it looked that the party was nearly an all male organisation and that this needed to be addressed urgently. (There was one woman seated at the top table, and another five in the room.)

With the atmosphere warmed up, there was a steady stream of people making their way up to articulate their belief in the power of the Workers Party. One said:

Issues can be approached from different positions. The Workers Party is a vehicle to approach issues from the point of view of the working class. The protection of the poor, the vulnerable, trade union rights. What other political party will tackle issues on behalf of the working class?

Much talk about the question of “class against class” and “class exploitation”. Delegates felt that only a Workers Party which has a proper ideology and takes consistently principled decisions has the power to challenge society, able to attack and counter attack the dominant ideology.

By the end of the session, I was pretty convinced that the Workers Party itself was confident of their need to survive! However, voters will make their minds known at the next set of elections.

The rejuvenated Workers Party plans to ‘shadow’ all Northern Ireland Executive departments. Three discussion papers were put forward at today’s conference.

Gemma Dowds outlining Workers Party discussion paper on Health and Social Care

Health and Social Care

Gemma Dowds introduced the party’s discussion paper on Health and Social Care. The party’s approach to health is the same as that when the NHS was founded.

Conference session introducing Workers Party discussion paper on Health and Social Care by Gemma Dowds (mp3)

Health and well being is about much more than the absence of sickness. And a health and social care service must be about more than intervening when problems arise.

Take a bus journey from Belfast city centre to the suburbs of BT9 and life expectancy increases with every bus stop.

Talked about foster caring, calling for the foster allowance to be doubled. Called on the recommendations of the 2007 Bamford Review to be implemented, as well as the re-introduction of free eye tests.

I spoke to Gemma during the lunch break.

Speaking to Gemma Dowds about the Workers Party discussion paper on Health and Social Care (mp3)

Breda Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives (not a party member) pointed out the discrepancies between the high caesarean section rates in NI compared to the lower levels in RoI:

Travelling a hundred miles doesn’t change the shape of your pelvis!

She also pointed out that NI consultant doctors take home £11m of bonuses.

Education …

Presenting the discussion paper on education, Kevin McNally – an essential skills tutor and former party candidate in East Belfast – called for “the end of this educational apartheid and the creation of a single education authority charged with delivering an education system free from religious division and fit for the 21st century.”

Conference session introducing Workers Party discussion paper on Education by Kevin McNally (mp3)

Tinkering with sectarian structures is not acceptable.

University places are capped, yet NI has lowest proportion of people with graduate qualifications in UK. Refers to “severe underachievement by working class Protestant boys”. Back in 2006, Public Accounts Committee confirmed only 4.4% attained second level qualifications in maths.

Workers party want Early Years strategy to be implemented immediately to focus resources on helping children acquire literacy and numeracy skills.

Remarks that £5,000 spent on early intervention is better than the £130,000 it costs for one child to spend a year in a children’s home. (Figures from Children’s service planners.)

A delegate from RoI called on Workers Party not to “just critique the present system but to put forward better alternatives”. Says education should be taken away religious bodies, but shouldn’t be replaced with corporate education.

Instead of having the priest coming in to talk to my kids, it’ll be the CEO of Intel. Great progress?!

Platform party at Workers Party northern conference 2011

Economy …

Chris Bailie – another fast speaker – was next up to present the discussion paper on the economy.

The Workers Party wants an economic plan for full employment. People in jobs in the public, private and voluntary/community sectors earning a good living and paying taxes expecting good quality health, education and local services in return.

Conference session introducing Workers Party discussion paper on Economy by Chris Bailie @duff91 (mp3)

The lowest wages in the UK and Ireland are found in Northern Ireland. Highest levels of fuel poverty. 40,000 people lost their jobs between June 2008 and March 2011. Twenty per cent of workers earn less than a ‘living wage’ (ie, amount needed to pay for all basic necessities of food, heat, clothes and accommodation).

Northern Ireland is over-represented in low pay sectors such as agriculture and food processing.

Economic crises come around regularly due to the boom and bust cycle of capitalist economics. The current crisis was “not a natural phenomenon” but was instead “the work of local and global financiers confident that if their greed bubble burst, the public would bail the private bands out”.

The Workers Party calls for a socialist alternative, “nationalise the banks and gear them for public good not as private profit machines” and to “tax those people who can afford it and reduce taxes for the people on lowest incomes”.

A delegate criticises Sammy Wilson’s brainstorming session when he summoned the “great and the good” to solve the world’s economic problems. Not a peep heard since. Suggested he was looking for his Warhol “fifteen minutes of fame”. And then he picked a fight with Tesco! Referring to Banksy’s iconic image, reckoned Sammy Wilson should watch out for Tesco Value petrol bombs.

I spoke to Chris over lunch.

Speaking to Chris Bailie @duff91 about the Workers Party discussion paper on the Economy (mp3)

Party Representatives …

Gerry Grainger announced the party’s group of ‘party representatives’. The Workers Party has had a recent influx of membership applications. These people will be the face of the party in their local areas, presenting the party’s policies and working with local branches to increase presence and profile in their areas.

Workers party representatives 2011

  • John Lavery – Old Park
  • Kevin McNally – Pottinger
  • John Lowry – Lower Falls
  • Paddy Lynn – Laganbank
  • Gemma Dowds – Castle
  • Desi Dines – Dunmurry Cross
  • Chris Bailie – Macedon
  • Peter Maguire – Ballymoney
  • David Quinn – Victoria
  • Jim Quinn – Court
  • Carmel McDonnell – Balmoral
  • Richard Rodgers – Ballymoney North
  • Richard Moore – Ballymena South
  • John McManus – Ballymena North

The conference broke for lunch and had an afternoon of activity to further discuss the economy.

Final thoughts

Like all party conferences, the Workers Party northern gathering was distinctive.

Unusually it was a party conference where people swore from the podium. While some contributors were at ease talking about socialist history and the party’s background, others were more concerned about working class issues. I’ve never been to a party conference where so many speeches called for the “poor and the vulnerable” to be protected.

Strangely, I heard no mention from the platform or podium about the Occupy Belfast protest camp that shares many values with the Workers Party. Perhaps the People Before Profit involvement makes it difficult for the left to share ownership.

Older comrades, many with trade union backgrounds, shared the room with younger, passionate comrades. Three or four delegates got up after each address to critique the discussion paper that had been presented based on their scribbled notes. No one seemed afraid to challenge or criticise. The top table were gracious and reflected back what they heard.

The Workers Party is in transition. Older members are intentionally handing over the baton of power responsibility to younger comrades. They’re planning to work in local communities. Time will tell whether the disparate left-leaning parties can co-operate, or whether the Workers Party can rise above it’s leftist competitors.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    Largest problem with the left in NI is that it is fragmented into a whole series of micro groups or networks of ‘old comrades’. Nothing functions like a coherent political party, or even a practical umbrella group. Everyone is too busy guarding their organisational autonomy or ideological purity…to the outside electorate this must look at best like left wing politics as small scale identity politics-a political pose that gives satisfaction to an individual party member, but has no practical impact on representation in the here and now.

    At times the self delusion is maddening- when there is a call for some unified action over say, cuts, or water charges-some groups say that they are ‘too big’ to be involved. This is ‘Life of Brian’ stuff.
    Still 9 out of 10 for organisational persistence.

  • wolfetone98

    I agree with a lot of what was said by ‘TwightoftheProds’ as when the Workers Party was very successful in the ‘South’ and the largest party of the left (I discount the Irish Labour Party as a serious left leaning party, just look at class-traitor Rabbitte’s granting of oil and gas exploration licenses to any greedy exploititive oil or gas multinational company that applies for one. He sounds like a marketing P.R. man for any of these firms. Party of James Connolly indeed!) they did tend to dismiss any other left party or cooperation as meaningless but this has been addressed with WP joining forces with other left parties in the ULA (United Left Alliance) I attended the WP Northern conference and was delighted with the mixture of Protestant, Cathollic and people of no religion who attended and indeed this was reflected with the future WP candidates who were introduced to the gathering. No one knows more than WP that these candidates will have a hard time competeing agains the larger Orange and Green sectarian parties who implement all the Tory/LibDem cuts in Health, Education and social security benefits but wrap the green and orange flags round me boys and vote blindly for Unionist or Nationalist sectarians while OAPs have to make life threatening decisions like ‘eat or heat’ and the poor get poorer and the ‘Banksters’ still rob us blind. I advise that with the next elections, ordinary people should not vote for parties that will implement these cuts because these same cuts will effect you and your family for generations to come!

  • Its not the first pantomime to be staged at the Grosvenor Hall.
    Rather like the poor and vulnerable (who they say they represent) the Workers Party will always be with us.

  • wolfetone98

    Well besides making snide remarks, what do you, ‘fitzjameshorse1745’ propose should happen to the ‘poor and vulnerable’ to alleviate their situation or does your hatred of WP blind you to what is happening to the ‘poor and vulnerable’ other than to help you point score!

  • stewart1

    The shockingly poor recent election results by the WP are reflective of their total meaningless within working class communities.

  • stewart1


  • wolfetone98

    stewart1, while people vote in sectarian Unionist or Nationalist terms, parties of the left will always suffer while tribalism flourishes. What party would you vote for or what is your views on sectarianism in N.I.?

  • aquifer

    Much of our working class work for us in the tropics. It is difficult to take a Marxist revolutionary gang seriously in this part of the world, when we need a middle class to develop products and services that can be exported so we can pay for imports.

  • fordprefect

    Yeah, “sectarianism kills workers” but, so does/did the “Official” IRA. The so-called “Official” IRA have never disbanded or been stood down and they never put their weapons beyond use. People were kneecapped and worse by this group and the “Workers Party” said nothing and the cops turned a blind eye because a lot of their members were working for them.

  • wolfetone98

    fordprefect, you have facts to substantiatate these allegations? If so produce them please or is ‘the dogs in the street’ your data base! When I canvassed for the Workers Party not one person raised anything about your allegations, they were more interested in jobs, the Health Service cuts and Tory/LibDem savage policies foisted on the people by the Unionist and Nationist parties in Stormont. Maybe I didn’t get to your door as I’m sure you would’ve brought up these ‘facts’ face to face with me or another WP canvasser.

  • chewnicked

    I think that the Workers Party is riddiing itself of it’s reputed paramilitary roots with OIRA, as the alleged forgers,extortionists and kneecappers drift off into the hickory retirement home
    Sadly the small rump of people left behind in the WP consists of not a lot of people with not very much talent meaning that not a lot of votes are ever going to be cast in their favour.
    Its not really the baggage of the past that deters electors but rather the paucity of political brains and charisma within the ranks of the journeymen left holding the tiller after the cute hoors jumped ship.
    There are other leftist groups with great potential to grow in a climate of opposition to the cutbacks imposed at Stormont whereas with the WP, it’s a case of last one out, turns off the lights…

  • fordprefect

    No I wasn’t going by the “dogs in the street” argument, and I hope that you weren’t trying to threaten me. I would go face to face and toe to toe with you or any other member of the WP if you came to my door (I’m not afraid of you or your armed wing). I was talking to two guys a while back (one from the lower Falls and the other from the Market) and both were shot in the legs by well known members of the WP. Both well known members of the WP were not masked (they did it bare faced) knowing full well that the people they shot wouldn’t tout to the cops (unlike themselves). So you have defeated your own argument, as, “the dogs in the street” knew who did these shootings.

  • First up, thanks to Alan for coming along to the conference and for making this available (and good to meet him as well).

    We are in a situation where we are seeing thousands of jobs lost, attacks upon the living standards of ordinary people, and cuts to public services while massive amounts of wealth – billions and billions – are transferred from the taxpayer to banks and private companies. We also continue to be plagued by sectarianism. The Stormont Executive simply does not want to face up to the question of sectarianism as the politics that get the MLAs elected depend upon it, and at the same time the Stormont parties have embraced the mad hope that lowering corporation tax will somehow solve all our economic problems, despite the rather clear evidence of the southern economy that this is not a sustainable solution (something which Conor McCabe gave an excellent talk on).

    We are told repeatedly there is no alternative. This conference set out to explore the alternative, and saw a great deal of debate around the economy, including a very positive contribution from Peter Bunting of the ICTU which outlined some options that would greatly improve the situation, as well as from Conor McCabe and John Lowry, the WP General Secretary. For those who are interested in exploring the alternative, the discussion papers from the conference are now online at the following link


    Those interested in actually facing up to the problems faced by ordinary working people and the unemployed, whatever their own background, may find them of interest. It’s a shame that the level of debate here hasn’t replicated that of the conference, which is explicitly designed to bring together a range of progressive political opinion, and which did so again this year.

  • Alan raises some important questions for the WP in his two threads and in his interviews. And there are no easy answers to them, especially not for a small party.

    Regarding his point about discussed at the conference and raised by Alan in the first thread about why we need a workers’ party. We in the WP are quite clear about that. The needs and interests of the working class can only be served by a principled political party of and for the working class. We are dedicated to building such a party. Obviously we are a long way from that. At this point, our most immediate goal must be to build unity among existing left and progressive political forces, while raising class consciousness. The cuts and the attacks on the living standards and rights of the working class are demonstrating to people that the idea that we are all in this together is a lie, as is the myth that we live in a classless society. We hope to build unity and raise class consciousness through our activity on the ground in workplaces, in communities and in trade unions, through events like this one, and through our publications and political arguments, especially LookLeft


    Obviously what we can do at this point and time is limited, but that does not limit the scope of our ambition. There is no substitute for hard work, for persuading people that their efforts can make a difference, for arguing about the need for class politics to transform key sectors of society (such as education, health, housing etc) and the economy (such as developing the state’s role in the economy) in the interests of the working class, the overwhelming majority in society.

    We need only look at the fact that the bondholders for Greece have been forced to take a 50% cut, while the bondholders for the Republic continue to be paid in full. The difference is simple. In Greece, the working class is much better organised and much more militant, and with clear leadership given primarily by the Communist Party of Greece (the 3rd largest party there) and the militant trade unions, has demonstrated that there will be resistance. The labour movement in NI has a history of mobilising large numbers of people for progressive political ends, most noticeably for peace in the early 1990s. We must try and mobilise it again to fight the cuts.

    Effective resistance needs a principled political party that works across political and economic areas of struggle. That’s why we need a workers’ party. Building a large and influential workers’ party is a slow and difficult task. But an essential one all the same.

  • fordprefect

    I agree with all the stuff that the WP said about bankers and so on. I also agree with your analysis of Nationalist and Unionist gobshites saying what people wanted to hear, but, have you forgotten about the WP/OIRA use of exemption tax forms (which didn’t do any workers any favours) and made quite a lot of WP members very rich?

  • wolfetone98

    fordprefect. I’m glad you agree with ‘all the stuff WP said about bankers etc’ and if you goggle their site you will find more information about this and other interesting material. ps you misread my last post entirely re ‘threats’. In the future I will only respond to fact related posts and not get into futile debates based on supposition.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    We need a workers’ party, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we need the Workers Party.

  • Exemption tax forms, good god the very mention takes me back to another equally dark age, best we leave them there.

    Alan thank you for this, the smaller parties conferences like the WP rarely get coverage. Garibaldy is right, if we are to oppose the neo liberal voodoo economics of the few, we have to come together on what we agree, not differ over the macro politics of the sects.

  • Rapunsell

    Well – there has obviously been some development within the party.

    Their Ballymoney representatives are i’m fairly certain former loyalist activists linked to the pup/uvf.