Royal Victoria strike defeated - Hands Off Ireland!

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.4 May/June 1980

The strike in April by NUPE workers at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast once again starkly exposed the role of trade union leaders in helping to sustain the British occupation of the North of Ireland. The strike was sparked off when a British soldier accidentally dropped his machine gun in a corridor of the hospital, firing a shot into the wall. For the 1300 NUPE workers at the hospital this incident was the last straw, coming as it did on top of the ever-increasing militarisation of the hospital and the continuous harassment of hospital workers by the British Army.

The Royal Victoria Hospital, situated on the Falls Road, has long been used by the British Army as a base for the surveillance and patrolling of neighbouring republican areas. In the last few years this occupation of the hospital by the British Army has become more and more blatant and extensive. In the words of one of the strike leaders, the hospital has been turned into a ‘mini-fortress’ by the Army. In 1977, for example, in order to consolidate and strengthen its presence in the hospital, the Army built a ten-foot high wall, together with a rocket-proof protective screen, around the entire hospital. Last November, ignoring protests by nurses, doctors and hospital workers, the Army established a post on top of a block of nurses’ flats at the hospital in order to spy on the surrounding republican areas. In the same arrogant way British soldiers within the hospital continually harass hospital workers by stopping and questioning them; and the Army is even about to introduce closed-circuit TV cameras to continuously monitor the entrances and corridors of the hospital.

In response to this increasing militarisation of the hospital and the harassment of their members the trade union leadership has offered only token resistance and often not even that. Indeed, John Coulthard, regional organiser of NUPE, who is one of the two NUPE full-time officials responsible for negotiating on ‘security’ at the RVH, recently boasted that he had always enjoyed good relations with the Army. It is not surprising that the NUPE workers at the hospital some time ago passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Coulthard and more recently indicated that Mrs Inez McCormack, the other full-time NUPE official responsible for negotiations on ‘security’ was equally unacceptable to them. The main aim of the strike – apart from protesting at the presence of the British Army in the hospital – was to secure for the workers the right to negotiate for themselves, through their local branch sub-committee, on questions of ‘security’ and the presence of the British troops in the hospital. As one of the strike leaders put it, ‘The members’ faith is in those they elected and not in any paid official. They made it clear in a massive vote that the only negotiators they want are their own sub-committee.’

The striking NUPE workers found themselves opposed not only by the British Army and by loyalist politicians such as Ian Paisley and Robert Bradford but also by their own union leaders. The latter clearly felt their own positions as professional union bureaucrats threatened by the strike and recoiled in horror from the spectacle of workers challenging military repression and harassment. When the strike started John Coulthard condemned it, saying, ‘Our Executive Council cannot authorise the industrial action currently being taken by the local branch. The whole subject is politically explosive and extremely sensitive.’ He later attacked the strikers for, in his words, attempting to make the hospital a ‘no-go area’. The national Executive Council of NUPE in London sided with Coulthard against the workers in condemning the strike and insisted that negotiations on ‘security’ were the concern solely of the full-time officials. At the same time Terry Carlin, Northern Ireland Officer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, stepped in and viciously attacked the strikers for ‘seeking to put patients’ lives in danger’ (in fact the workers had offered to provide emergency cover but had been refused by the hospital authorities). To bring additional pressure to bear on the strikers Carlin rapidly convened a meeting of the leaders of other unions at the hospital who then also condemned the strike.

In the face of such combined opposition the workers soon felt that they had little option but to return to work. Having helped to sabotage the strike the union leaders then gloated over their success. John Coulthard said:

‘Our members go back in the full knowledge that the Army and cameras are there and that nothing has been gained in terms of an investigation into the troops’ behaviour and that Mrs Inez McCormack and I are the full-time negotiators for NUPE on security matters.’

Terry Carlin for his part commented smugly:

‘I am very pleased the workers have heeded the considered advice of their unions to call off this unofficial dispute.’

By coincidence the annual conference of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU opened in Belfast on the day after the strike at the RVH ended and as if to underline the treacherous role which it had played the ICTU leadership paraded its reactionary views once more at the conference. In opening the conference the loyalist Lord Mayor of Belfast, William Bell, said that he

‘would like to publicly thank Mr Terry Carlin, the Northern Ireland Officer of the ICTU, and the national executive of NUPE for the very responsible way in which they acted during the recent unofficial strike at the RVH . . . our country has never stood in greater need of wise leadership and co-operation from the members of trade unions.’

The ICTU leadership was quick to show its ‘co-operative’ attitude on the opening day of the conference when four trade unionists were forcibly evicted from the conference for distributing leaflets to delegates calling for trade union action to alleviate the plight of the prisoners in the H-Blocks.

Later the ICTU leadership also refused to allow an emergency resolution calling for the withdrawal of the trade union representatives from the Northern Ireland Police Authority to be put to the conference. The resolution was proposed by Jack Hassard who resigned as trade union representative from the Police Authority last year in protest at RUC brutality and the refusal of the Police Authority to do anything about it, despite the clear evidence of police torture and the total lack of credibility of the Police Authority.

The proceedings at this conference, like the strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital immediately before it, not only demonstrated once again the role of the trade union leadership in covering up for, and collaborating with, the British state in its attacks on the Irish working class. They also showed that increasing numbers of rank-and-file trade unionists in the North of Ireland are prepared to act in defiance of their leaders in seeking to resist the torture, repression and harassment of workers which is inseparable from British rule in Ireland – whether it be on the streets or in the workplace, in the interrogation cells of Castlereagh or the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

Robert Blake


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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