Northern Ireland Deserves Better – Workers Party NI conference #wpniconf

Workers Party NI conference table sweets and agendaBang on time – if Belfast was using Central European Time – the Workers Party Northern Ireland started an hour late, a tardiness shared with all other left-leaning party conferences I’ve attended. Held in Methodist church’s Grosvenor Hall on Belfast’s Glengall Street, the party have about 50 delegates present this morning.

The conference theme’s theme “Northern Ireland Deserves Better” was explored across a range of issues including housing, education, tax avoidance, the media, outdoor advertising and was supported in the afternoon sessions by guest speeches on public health and wellbeing, job creation programmes and youth employment opportunities and welfare reform.

Chair of the Workers Party’s NI Executive, Gerry Grainger appraised the past year and looked forward to the next twelve months of party activity. He welcomed The Dublin High Court’s refusal of the US extradition warrant, but noted that Sean’s freedom does not extend to Northern Ireland or indeed anywhere outside the Republic of Ireland. (Funny to hear Rev Chris Hudson thanked for campaigning on behalf of Sean Garland and later to realise that a few delegates were taken aback by the small cross carved into the Grosvenor Hall lectern!)

Gerry highlighted the Workers Party’s involvement in trade union rallies, the International Women’s Day events, the annual May Day parade and Belfast Pride.

We favour a full programme of secular sex education for schools, free access to contraception, proper health and social care for pregnant women, the provision of appropriate free and quality child care facilities and adequate support for single and low income parents.

The party also believes in a woman’s right to choose and supports the provision of free and safe abortion in her own country which will include practical facilities to support somen seeking an abortion and quality post-abortion care.

Let me take this opportunity to welcome the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast as a step toward securing a woman’s right to choose … starting to bring Northern Ireland into the 21st century.

On behalf of the party, Gerry congratulated Dawn Purvis’ appointment as the local Marie Stopes programme director and wished her support.

He stated that “this party and the battle against sectarianism are inseparable”. Yet post-Good Friday Agreement “not only are the old residual sectarian models still functioning but new manifestations continue to emerge”. Gerry quoted north Belfast party representative John Lavery who during the recent violence and tension said:

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP benefit by fostering and maintaining this community division This is their joint electoral strategy.

The Workers Party ANTI SECT ARIA NISM poster was burnt on an Eleventh night bonfire on the Newtownards Road. “Obviously not everyone has got the message!”

Channelling the spirit of Kermit the Frog, Gerry said “I know being the Workers Party is not easy”, adding “we cannot plan for the future by listing the reasons why something can’t be done”.

The party took delight in their success at UU Jordanstown’s Freshers Week and is setting up a branch at the campus. Other branches are rejuvenated and forming across NI, including in Derry.

Workers Party NI Conference

Peter Maguire presented a paper to the delegates on Homes and Housing. [PDF copy.] NI Housing Executive figures show 40,000 applicants on housing list, 20,000 of which are in “housing stress”. Homelessness is on the increase along with the number of households facing repossession due to difficulties meeting mortgage repayments.

Of concern to the Workers Party is the fact that 14 years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement, housing remains segregated and not just in Belfast … Last year the Alliance Party brought to the Assembly a motion calling for a “landmark review of segregation” with the aim of eliminating both segregation and discrimination and a duty on the Houseing Executive to promote and protect all housing as mixed”. The motion was rejected by 62 votes to 18.

The speech strongly praised the role and expertise of the NI Housing Executive:

Over the years of Tory rule there have developed a plethora of voluntary and private interests in the housing sector. This has been accompanied by a decline in the role of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as the lead body for housing delivery and management. As a public sector body the NIHE over the past 40 years has overseen the redevelopment of an out-dated and antiquated housing stock [Ed – didn’t it allow the same stock to fall behind?] and in the process has developed an unrivalled expertise and management know how in the housing sector. When it is public, integrated and fully funder it has proven it works best. That is a situation we must get back to.

The paper called for a new house building programme, and end to sectarian segregation, for the NIHE to be “restored to its role as the lead public housing authority”, for greater help for those in mortgage distress, more effort in homelessness prevention and for opposition to “welfare freeform which will adversely impact those on housing benefit”.

Christopher Bailie spoke about education. [PDF copy.]

There has been tortuous progress on fundamental areas of policy which on the surface of it ought to be capable of gaining all party support if the public pronouncements of the parties in the assembly are to be believed. Like so many things in the life, the Assembly parties are committed to all things bright sna beautiful. So too with education.

The Education and Skills Authority was praised as an “eminently sensible proposal”, yet “sectarian vested influences continue to exercise much influence and control”. The ESA’s composition will not be “a new, fresh and innovative body that blows the cobwebs off our education system”.

The game was given away by Joanne Dobson, pin up lady and supposed embodiment of the new, fashionable and modern Ulster Unionist Party. During the debates … she made it clear: “the influence of political and religious stakeholders must be protected throughout the rationalisation of the school system”.

More a case of old wine in new bottles. Sectarianism and sectarian division will be embodied in the new ESA.

Chris listed the make up of the ESA board with eight church representatives, eight political representative from the Assembly parties (allocated by D’Hondt), four representatives and a chair appointed by Education Minister.

He noted the 2011 report on educational disadvantage and its call to invest more in early years. 2009/2010 figures show per pupil expenditure as £3,698 at primary level; £5,287 at post primary.

He also pointed to confusion between the terms “integrated education” and “shared education”. The former “involves the removal of sectoral schools in favour of unitary common schools”. The latter “in essence addressing the duplication of resources and building and promotes cooperation and interdependent relations” is not a diluted alternative to integrated education.

John Lowry took to the podium saying that the Worker Party offered “the only viable alternative to the consensus politics of the Stormont parties”. [PDF copy.]

Appeals to the past, the emotive calling up of centenaries, whether it be the Covenant, Home Rule or the Easter Rising, have little to offer the unemployed, those in poverty, the homeless or anyone seeking to build a better future.

There is a line in that great Paul Brady song The Island where he sings of the futility of those who are trying to carve a future from the tombstones of the past.

On sectarianism:

The DUP/Sinn Fein coalition have sat on the strategy for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, ignoring what they were told during the consultation process, namely that people want to live together as a united and integrated community. All manner of academic studies have told us that this is so. The DUP and Sinn Fein do not want integration because it is not in their political interests to do so. Their political survival depends on the continuation of the them and us mentality, of separate existence and the maintenance of outdated myths that often pass as culture … Did you notice how Sinn Fein were not prepared to upset the DUP over welfare reform but were willing to bring down the Assembly over policing?

On education:

Whatever the arguments about why it cannot happen, why is it in the 21 century that our teacher training colleges, the only sector of third level education still segregated on sectarian lines?

On Corporation Tax:

The Assembly has no economic vision, no plan or strategy as to how jobs can be created [Ed – surely DETI and Invest NI have a plan or two; execution is the question?] and our economic future secured, other than to plead for a lowering of corporation tax. It is a deeply flawed approach.

John Lowry saw no evidence that it would create jobs, quoting former US economic envoy Declan Kelly who said that corporation tax was not an issue for American firms seeking to invest in Europe. Besides, he suggested that companies like Google and Facebook locating their European HQs in Dublin to available of the lower corporation tax did so with “merely a paper move with a skeleton office and staff designed purely for accountancy purposes”.

The continued institutionalisation of sectarian divisions and structures at Stormont was criticised.

All of these measures, designating as unionist and nationalist, mandatory coalition, parallel majority voting, petitions of concern etc were adopted as measures to prevent abuse of power and discrimination. They would be subject to review and change as peace was consolidated and the institutions matured. Whatever about the maturity of the institutions, peace has been consolidated and there can be no argument for the maintenance of the present structures. Not only are they outdated but they act as a block to political development and change.

John finished his speech with a section on Left Cooperation. The onetime political voice of the left, Northern Ireland Labour Party, had been “a casualty of the outpouring of sectarianism in the early 70s”. But with “thousands of people in the trade unions and left political groupings who identify themselves as on the left and as socialists” the Workers Party needs to “play our part in developing a cohesive, principled and effective social sconstituency which challenges not only the limitations of the Assembly at Stormont but a constituency which createds a space for political activists of the left”.

On the back of the Look Left magazine branding, the party proposed to develop a Look Left Forum “open to all serious and principled individuals and organisations concerned with the advancement of progressive and socialist views”.

The Workers Party also wants to see “an agreed candidate of the left” for the next European Election. While “we do not see this as a magic wand or guarantee of election success” they will write to other parties to try to gather concensus around such an electoral intervention.

I also spoke to John Lowry when conference broke for lunch, asking a little about the party’s formation and how it can work alongside the resurgent NI Labour Party and other socialist groups.

Workers Party NI Conference - and the Swiss canton of ZugThree delegates closed the morning session by bring proposals for future party activity. Damien Harte spoke about tax avoidance by major retail companies, [PDF copy] introduced conference to the post office in the “little Swiss canton of Zug” which acts as the registered address for Chestnut Overseas (associated with Tesco) as well as Boots the Chemist. Cadburys, Walkers Crisps and Sir Philip Green (and his wife) came in for strong criticism too. He called on conference to endorse a high-profile public awareness campaign right across Northern Ireland against tax avoidance by big companies and high street shops.

Brian McDermott took up the subject of the media – which I’ll return to in a second post. [PDF copy.] All morning the projector had no red signal, something which Brian humorously put down to the projector’s right wing stance!

Finally, Gemma Dowds proposed that the party lobby to see the banning of outdoor advertisements which “clutter up our environment” and “sell unhappiness”. [PDF copy.] Brazilian city São Paulo have already banned outdoor ads, and there is a petition in Bristol to do the same. Gemma worried about Bluetooth push advertising and digital bill boards which would soon know who was standing in front of them. The party will write to Environment Minister Alex Attwood to ask about his plans on the subject.

The conference’s afternoon was going to be devoted to a panel addressing four topics under the banner of Northern Ireland deserves better:

  • Public Health and wellbeing (Dr Una Lynch)
  • Job creation programmes and youth employment opportunities (Kerry Fleck)
  • Welfare reform and its consequences (Les Allamby, NI Law Centre)
  • Political structures and governance (John Lowry)

The conference was down in numbers from last year – put down to the welfare reform march taking place at the same time. While delegate numbers were low, and party members in attendance even lower, there were quite a few young faces and signs of growth in regional branches.

The Workers Party isn’t dead. In many ways, they have more widespread support than the PUP. (On a tangent, interesting to hear Dawn Purvis mentioned twice at the Workers Party conference, two more times than last weekend at the PUP’s conference.) However, their very lack of an obvious sectarian or paramilitary hook to hang their banner on may limit their relevance to producers seeking pundits to opine on topical issues. In some ways, the Workers Party are good at communication. [Ed – whaaaa?] Of all the local parties, the Workers Party lead the way in the use of imagery during their speeches, with illustrative photos and pictures projected in a subtle and non-distracting way. And their speeches are well written and edited.

Success will only come if the Workers Party can scrape its ideas off the papers they produce and get other people talking about them and acting on them. The Green Party is an obvious ally at Stormont – though a competitor too – who could borrow many of their ideas and bring them to greater prominence. But the fractured left wing political spectrum will continue to work against the kind of values and ideas the Workers Party have being more widely heard. And a lack of historic electoral success will work against an agreed socialist/left candidate in the European election getting much coverage in 2014.

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.

  • Fozzy

    It is true the WP event today clashed with the main trade unionist rally in Belfast and WP members and supporters wanted to particpate in march. In the afternoon the hall was packed out bigtime with standing room only at the back. Pretty good conference and the speech in the afternoon session about welfare reform and the health service was a real eye opener. It is a pity you didnt hang about to witness that, real issues, true facts and great debate.

  • Fozzy – lots of real issues in the morning too, Maybe someone will send a photo of the packed room.

  • Thanks for doing this Alan. As you say, there is a need to get these ideas out to a wider audience, and get people talking about them. Sham fights between the two big parties are doing nothing to address our social and economic problems, and many of the policies advocated by those two will worsen them. Not so much Nero fiddling, as Nero doing magic tricks to distract the population from the fact Rome is burning. More is needed.

  • When get the Sticks get all partitionist on us?

  • keano10

    What a complete load of old tosh from John Lowry. Same old Sticks. If he doesnt want the Easter Rising et al continually regurgitated then why does his party continue to hold an Easter Rising Parade to Milltown Cemetey every year? How does that fit in with the rest of their all-encompassing party manifesto?

  • Alan Myler

    Welcome coverage of the conference.

    It is a pity the coverage didn’t extend into the afternoon session. The panel session on health and welfare reform included excellent contributions from guest speakers who contributed a critique and vision which was both detailed and had great breadth. The strength of the afternoon session in my opinion is that it opened up space for a dialog between those who would seek to base a convincing broadly based and progressive political opposition to neo-liberal austerity on the terrain of the actually existing politics of Northern Ireland. The guest speakers contributed from what could be loosely termed traditionally social democratic perspectives. While there is much historical antipathy internationally, and locally, between the communist & workers political tradition and that of social democracy, it is clear that if a Left political narrative is to gain traction within society that there needs to be a challenge posed to all players to overcome knee-jerk positions and find common cause. The conference yesterday in Belfast is a sign that at least the Workers Party, and one would hope other broadly Left groups in the politics and society of Northern Ireland, are open to moving beyond comfort zones and facing up to these challenges. There was an energy and commitment to this project which was tangible at the party conference which offers some hope in that respect.

    Alan Myler, Meath Branch Secretary, The Workers’ Party.

  • Dec

    ‘When get the Sticks get all partitionist on us?’

    Around 1969.

  • Fozzy

    Dec, what is your point? It is 2012.

  • forthman

    The ‘workers party’, a micro group with delusions of grandeur! There is no coming back for the WP. Twenty to thirty years ago their ‘protection’ of thugs, burglers and rapists( ala lower Ormeau road) and the PIRA’s defence of these communities, sowed the seeds of the later’s electorial growth. The people who lived through those days know all about the ‘workers party’.
    That is the reason for their irrelevant democratic vote share, nothing else.

  • forthman – You make strong allegations with no evidence or links to news stories that support your version of events. Also remember WP’s many twists, turns and splits that led to the current antisectarian movement.

  • keano10


    I totally support Forthman’s comments and there is any amount of documented data which covers the involvement of The Workers Party in extortion and racketeering and ongoing punishment beatings. Even the sympathetic book by Scott Millar and Brian Hanley ” The Lost Revolution” does concede that extortion and robberies were carried out.

    I grew up in area in which The Workers Party were involved in regular extortion on building sites right through to the late 1990’s. Punishment beatings were also a regular occurrence.

    You are either very young Alan or else incredibly naive if you believe that this never happened. Perhaps a little more research would help. You wont have to dig too far…

  • BarneyT

    Being Anti-sectarian has to work in all directions. I have lived and breathed “Republican Club”, “Sinn Fein the Workers Party”, “The Workers Party”. I am talking about exposure at a very personal level. I should be genetically “workers party” through and through.
    My findings: Anyone subscribing to such notions of a United Ireland, is automatically branded a “Shinner”, with a level of hatred and venom that would sit well in an extremist and sectarian enclave.
    I’ve watched these 30 something WP activists turn into 60 something…well…. British partitionists, and I consider them to be largely lost! They are the first to sneer and deride anyone that attempts their native tongue. Dare declare you have an Irish passport and you will be held to account as a British established rejectionist amongst other things…and how very dare you. They talk of the “Republican myths” and in doing so surely enter into the same world of “Narnia” given the their presumably shared mythical past.
    By rights they should welcome the direction that SF (long lost brother) are travelling, which now surely complies with the mantra I thought I was reared with i.e. “We will achieve a United Ireland through peaceful means”. Perhaps that was a line I was fed to keep me in check and to prevent me from straying to the “dark side”. They are in constant opposition to Sinn Fein and from what I have seen over many years and they allow that to define them. Perhaps Sinn Fein reminds them of their own past. Ask any postman in the South Down\Armagh area and they’ll let you know just how rusty the “WP” guns are.
    By all means address the social conditions that we face in the six counties and the here and now is important. I accept that putting bread on the table and securing a wage does take precedence largely, but you can do this by prioritising instead abandoning All-Ireland socialist aspirations (for a truly united people regardless of creed).
    SF and the DUP have largely remained as they are, upholding their immediately beliefs (which I am not specifically advocating here) that are dear to them and showing they can work together. I don’t think either is in any doubt regarding the others position on most matters and that will always present an opportunity for reconciliation. You cannot say this of the WP, as they have always shifted with the opportunistic tide…and would say played “Uncle Tom”…without success or it seems principle.
    A very much personal take on my 40 years exposure to the party and their followers.

  • BarneyT

    typo: “British establishment rejectionist “

  • Fozzy

    The last few comments simply are very unfair, lacking any credible evidence or any logic. They are just nothing else than a slur, a labeling and shaming attempt for what purpose I simply cannot tell. Certainly not very christian. Imagine saying the PIRA was the defence of the catholic community, whereas, they killed more catholics with their bombs, punishment shootings, killings, than the combined british army or loyalist. If that is defence, I wouldnt want to see attack of their community. Also racketeering, robberies, and guns in armagh. I live in armagh, and you are right the post man even knows how rusty the guns are, they are rusty. (another slur) Robberies= Northern bank £20 million. British establishment rejectionist, christ almighty. Some craic. I would ask the last few to state who they polictically support?

  • IrelandNorth

    Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)/Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)/Traditionalist Unionist Party (TUP)/Progresssive Unionist Party (PUP)/Alliance Party (AP)/Research Group (RG)/United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)/Conservative Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI)/British National Party (BNP). Green Party (GP)/Natural law party (NLP). Sínn Féin (SF)/Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)/Workers Party (WP). Is it just my imagination or is it getting a little crowded in here. And I haven’t even begun on the 26.