The Independent Workers’ Union (IWU)

Neoliberalism and the sectarian welfare state of Northern Ireland

We need to contextualise the difficulties facing anti-institutional, alternative trade unions in Ireland today. It is necessary briefly to identify the nature of the Sectarian Welfare State of Northern Ireland (SWSNI) and its political economy as it has emerged from a protracted civil insurgency which began in 1968, and ended formally, with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.

This is a story, in part, of the sectarian welfare state meeting the new era of neoliberal transformation in which the post war social settlement (the rise of the Keynesian Welfare State) and the 1998 (GFA) had been disrupted, if not (yet) abandoned, by a tide of neoliberalism dispensed by London and the Northern Ireland Assembly.1

The SWSNI has had two phases. The first beginning after 1945, SWSNI-1, was marked by the adaptation of British Keynesian welfare state strategies designed for social and economic inclusion to the institutions of the Northern Ireland Orange State, sui generis.2 Keynesian policies of social inclusion sat, antagonistically, alongside the state’s repressive apparatuses founded upon the social and economic exclusion of northern Irish Catholics.3 While the civil insurgency which began in 1968 would effectively end with the harnessing of this particular pattern of subordination the UK government extended elements of Keynesianism in order to maintain employment in the face of social and economic sclerosis accompanying the civil insurgency. This was a key feature of the second phase, SWSNI-2 which began in 1998 with the Belfast Agreement, and it has been marked by the institutionalisation of sectarian political divisions. This is codified by the deHont principles defining the distribution of political patronage in the Stormont (government) Assembly. It is important to note that while at the time of writing the Assembly has been suspended, replaced by Direct Rule from Westminster, nevertheless the actions and strategic imperatives of the Assembly remain the order of the day. Indeed, ironically, the aspic which has preserved sectarian divisions since 1998 now also is evident in its preservation of the political class and its various interests (and intrigues). The political class is distinguished by its principal role which is to ensure significant leverage over the disbursement of state (EU, UK and Republic of Ireland) funding for community associations linked to Protestant and Irish Nationalist community networks: in local parlance, ‘the price of peace’.

Specifically, the European Union Special Peace Programme for Northern Ireland allocated some €1995 million (EU component €1335 million) between 1995-2013 to encourage stable economic development and community cohesion. From 1995-1999, 13,000 projects received support and the Special Programme included a specific budget for ex-prisoner groups to encourage ‘conflict prevention and transformation’. By 2003 a total of 61 political ex-prisoner groups and a further 29 affiliated projects received €9.2 million from EU peace funds4 reflecting both the high percentage of the population who are politically motivated ex-prisoners (14-31% of the male population; Jamieson, Shirlow and Grounds, 2010) and, by offering a stake in the new dispensation, sustained political concern for the survival of the ‘peace process.’5

The Independent Workers’ Union

It was against the backdrop of neoliberal restructuring in the Republic of Ireland, and neoliberal and political restructuring in the north of Ireland, that the Independent Workers’ Union was set up. That said, its proximate origins are to be found in the rejection of social partnership in the Republic of Ireland and the impetus given to this by the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions). The union has been concerned with being able to respond to the needs of workers in precisely those sectors of the economy impacted by neoliberal economic strategies. Since 2005 the IWU has supported calls to reject European Union treaties that were designed to lead to greater domination of the continent by neoliberalism. Before it had been founded a decade, the IWU had moved to promoting a different approach to organised labour in an attempt to address the changing terrain on which the economy was built in the 21st century. One of the models the union adopted, community unionism, was not new but had not been widely recognised in Ireland, North and South, as a means of dealing with the impact of globalisation on labour.

The IWU recognised that the shift in labour from manufacturing to service industries North and South, the exponential growth in agency work and part time employment, the marked rise in immigration post-2004, and the large numbers employed in small private enterprises hostile to unionisation required new forms of organising. The union activists combine traditional trade union recruitment activities (eg leafleting factory gates, press coverage, establishing workplace committees) with creative direct action, street theatre and protest (against, for example, privatisation in the public health service and cuts in welfare provision); the hosting of meetings with small groups of workers in informal settings (houses, bars, community centres, car parks); and link with community organisations to instigate local community based projects. Home-helps, migrant factory and agricultural workers, café, hotel and bar staff, recycling plant employees, as well as public service NHS workers have all added to the ranks of the organisation. Furthermore, counter to claims of inherent migrant worker passivity, in several areas and workplaces, significantly in the north of Ireland, it has been unionised migrant workers who have been winning contracts and improved conditions for themselves and their Irish born colleagues. For the IWU, these activities led it to adopt a form of community unionism in certain aspects of its organisation and activities especially in the North.

Community trade unionism is distinct from unionising the community and voluntary ‘sector’ towards which both Unison and SIPTU (The Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union)6 recently employed officials. Rather it recognises that in any working class neighbourhood today in Ireland i) people are as likely to be unemployed as in work and there are a number of broader social and class issues impacting on people that the union movement must engage with; ii) working people are likely to be employed by a plethora of different individual businesses. This highlights the extent to which in the absence of a large industrialised workforce with its everyday place-based collectivism (walking through the same gates and sharing shifts, canteens and breaks), efforts have to be made at the neighbourhood level to enable solidarity between currently disparate workplace struggles and issues confronting friends and family. It may not be surprising that the approach has been most popular in two areas of Derry and Belfast in the north of Ireland with stubbornly high unemployment and associated social problems, but also with a strong history of resistance to a state sponsored discrimination. Resistance, as is well known, manifested itself in civil rights marches through to armed insurrection. This brings us to the additional challenge of community trade union organising in the North especially where the state reproduction of sectarian division manifests itself in the polarisation of working class communities and, within these, localised structures linked to political party or paramilitary interests that often militate against class solidarity. The task for a militant trade union seeking to make Connolly’s and Larkin’s socialist labour legacies meaningful to communities emerging from a tradition of militarist Republicanism is not to be underestimated.

While re-articulating this legacy, the IWU seeks at the same time to appeal to working class Protestants, understandably cautious following more than 35 years of conflict, and whose political representation has been particularly reactionary. Drawing, for example, on community sector contacts and cross-community relationships developed over many years, the IWU organised a trade union promotional event in the loyalist heartland of East Belfast. The meeting was well attended and drew a positive response from a local elected representative. Unfortunately the event did not lead to an increase in recruitment to the union but this may have been due to other factors relating to local political tensions. However, the long term benefit of addressing working class communities on issues of economic relevance as distinct to the purely constitutional cannot be underestimated.

Elsewhere, of course, the IWU carried out more conventional trade union work with members of the Protestant working class representing people from that community at tribunal and on one occasion picketing a workplace in the then DUP leader’s home constituency.

In the public sector in the North, following gains for community mental health workers, the union stepped up its campaign against privatisation in the health sector. In its conflict with management, it also challenged the accommodation between the public sector organisation and pre-existing unions. In another area of the economy, migrant workers in a recycling plant sought union support against discrimination but soon found that formal and informal economy practices overlapped. Paramilitary threats to union members and organisers, including subsequent attacks on workers’ property, have illustrated starkly the challenges to union organisation posed by the changing character of the working class in the northern part of the island.7

Given also the relatively high density of union membership in the north of Ireland’s public sector it is perhaps unsurprising that the IWU has not made the large breakthrough. We know how difficult it is, typically, to recruit private sector and precarious workers. Coupling this approach, however, with the targeting of larger, rural based workplaces in geographical areas surrounding established union offices had some success for a limited period. In the mid noughties, IWU members set up a workers co-operative café, arguably the first of its kind on the island, which became for a limited time a social centre and hub for organising activity. The development attracted young people to the union, including the unemployed, politically committed activists, students and ideologically sympathetic Spanish, Basques and Catalans. A further and welcome challenge is linking this activists’ dynamism with the ongoing requirements to service the diverse union membership within new and traditional economies.

It is a tough world for labour today, with both its economic-workplace and forms of political representation in crisis. While the gig economy is limited in terms of aggregate employment what matters, in addition to those working in it obviously, is the impact which the platform-app economy is having more broadly on labour and employment conditions including labour standards. And moreover, this means that the trade union commitment to remake the world as it was in the post war period, with highly centralised labour unions committed to retaining ever diminishing Keynesian social settlements is highly problematical. It would be good if this were possible and the IWU fights in traditional ways where it can, membership permitting. But so many workers in the new neoliberal world labour beyond this environment: and often with little mainstream labour movement support. Organisation, solidarity and positive gains are required for these workers too.

In Ireland, as elsewhere today, many of these workers will be migrants and living and working in communities with greater or lesser degrees of ‘resources for hope’ as Raymond Williams put it. This is a key constituency to which the IWU is responding and was one of the first unions in Ireland to employ a native Polish speaker in order to engage with the large community of Poles now working in Ireland.

Thus, in conclusion, structure, sector, political sectarianism, and the changing composition of labour, all present significant trials for the union and are, arguably, unique in the constellation of challenges that affect small and oppositional unions in other European countries. These factors have all played a role in the IWU’s active engagement with other progressive trade unions in order to identify the best means of addressing issues impacting on workers in the modern era and in light of changing circumstances in the contemporary economy. This is a process in which organised labour and the working class cannot tolerate failure.

  1. See Stewart, P. McKearney, T., Ó Machail, G, Campbell, P and Garvey, B (2018) The State of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Deficit: Between sectarianism and neo-liberalism. Glasgow: Vagabond Voices. 

  2. See O’Dowd, Liam et al. (1980) Northern Ireland: Between Civil Rights and Civil War. SCE Books. 

  3. See Coulter, Colin. and Murray, Michael. (2008) Northern Ireland after the Troubles. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

  4. See Shirlow, P., Graham, B., McEvoy, K., Ó hAdhmaill, F. and Purvis, D. (2005) Politically Motivated Former Prisoner Groups: Community Activism and Conflict Transformation, Belfast: Northern Ireland Community Relations Council.  

  5. See McKeever, Gráinne. and O’Rawe, Mary. (2007) ‘Political ex-prisoners and policing in transitional societies – testing the boundaries of new conceptions of citizenship and security’, International Journal of Law in Context 3 (2): 105-125. 

  6. SIPTU has a membership in the Republic of Ireland of more than 180,000 workers. The membership comes from a broad range of work environments and sectors in the economy in the republic 

  7. An extended account of this moment can be found in Garvey and Stewart (2015) ‘Migrant workers and the north of Ireland: between neo-liberalism and sectarianism’, Work, Employment and Society pp. 392–408. 29 (3): 392-408. 


Paul Stewart

Paul Stewart was until recently Professor of Sociology of Work and Employment at the Strathclyde University and coordinated the Marie Curie “ChangingEmployment” programme (2012-2016). He has published on the impact of sectarianism on Polish and Lithuanian migrant workers in the north of Ireland. He is a member of UNITE and the IWU, and a non-executive director of CAIRDE Teo, an Irish language community association in Armagh City. He is co-author of “We Sell Our Time No More”, and was editor of the British Sociological Association’s journal Work, Employment and Society (2001-4). He is on the editorial committee of Capital and Class.

Tommy McKearney

Tommy McKearney is a former member of the IRA, a political ex-prisoner and hunger striker. Remaining interested in contemporary politics he regularly contributes to media debates on Irish republican politics. He is the author of The Provisional IRA, from insurrection to parliament events and writes a regular column for the monthly Socialist Voice. An active trade unionist he is on the National Executive of the Independent Workers Union. He is involved in the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Congress which is building a united socialist movement in Ireland. Originally from Co. Tyrone, he lives in County Monaghan in the Irish Republic.

Brian Garvey

Brian Garvey is from Armagh in the north of Ireland and now works as a Lecturer at University of Strathclyde, Scotland, in the Department of Work and Organisation. He was previously an organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland and has been involved with a range of community and labour organisations in Ireland, Scotland and Brazil. He currently represents his branch of the University and Colleges Union.