An Interview with Patricia Campbell

ATC Editors

PATRICIA CAMPBELL IS President of the Irish Independent Workers Union (IWU), an independent trade union and social movement in both the north and south of Ireland. She is a deputy editor of the journal Fourthwrite, founded by a group of Irish Republicans most of whom are former political prisoners from the Republican movement.

Patricia Campbell spent a week in the Detroit-Ann Arbor area as part of a tour of several U.S. cities in February. She spoke on several college campuses and a forum sponsored by Detroit Solidarity. The following passages are excerpts from her discussion at a lunch meeting with Arab community activists at the Palestine Office in Dearborn, and an interview later that afternoon conducted by David Finkel from the editorial board of Against the Current.

THE “PEACE PROCESSES” currently happening in Ireland as well as in Palestine, I don’t call them “peace” processes – I call them “political” processes. Sometimes I just turn off the news, because I could write the script. The absence of conflict doesn’t mean there is peace – it just means an absence of people being slaughtered.

This morning, I read that (Sinn Fein president) Gerry Adams is saying it’s time for Republicans to join the Northern Ireland police force, which is now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). We call it the “Continuity RUC” [Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland police force which brutalized Catholic communities for decades – ed.].

Even though I’m prepared for this it’s still a bitter pill to swallow – it’s like when someone close to you is dying from cancer and you think you’re ready for the ending; but when it happens you’re not really ready, the loss is still devastating.

It feels like that for me with all compromises the Sinn Fein leadership are slowly but surely making. This is the RUC that smashed into our homes, harassed us, tortured us, waged war against us. Now republicans are being encouraged to join the “new” RUC. If the union I’m helping to build, the IWU, protest on the streets to demand our rights this “new” police force, including former comrades, if ordered to do so (by central British government) will be battering us off the streets.

The Palestinians have already had to swallow that bitter pill, they have witnessed the same thing. That’s painful, worse than Israel “putting the boot in.” Sinn Fein insist that current policing is “political policing,” inferring that when they join the police board it won’t be political. When is policing not political? When a police force enforces laws they do so at the behest of the state.

Legacy of Conflict

I work as a community psychiatric nurse in Belfast. I have first-hand experience of working with the broken lives of those who are brutalized and traumatized by years of conflict. I drive through housing developments every day and I know first hand what people are dealing with. Their social and economic needs certainly are not met, and cannot and never will be met by this process.

Nationalist politicians pay lip service to those needs. When they were working the Stormont Assembly [the Northern Ireland parliament, long monopolized by Protestant Unionists, which Nationalists joined after the Good Friday agreement – ed.] they closed hospitals, introduced neo-Thatcherite policies such as private finance initiatives.

Nationalist politicians, together with Unionist politicians [supporters of Northern Ireland’s union with Britain], collectively want tougher punitive action and tougher sentences for young people who offend. These are the dysfunctional young kids who are addicted to drugs, who are without employment, born into drug-infested areas and who are the product of years of conflict.

Many see suicide as their only option. There is a sharp rise in the suicide rate in post-conflict Belfast. Policies proposed by politicians’ to curb youth delinquency create a “them” and “us” syndrome – the “haves” and the “have nots.” The “haves” propose to lock up the “have nots,” with no recognition that these dysfunctional young lives require long term interventions, social and economic rights to solve their problems. They need hope, not drug-infested prisons.

Who Won the War?

We did not win the war but we’re not defeated. The day we say we are defeated is the day we give up. The republican movement came to terms with the British State, they have embedded themselves with the British establishment and right now they are parked with the rest of the establishment. Reactionary forces are in control, but they are in control in the rest of the world and it’s up to all of us to ensure that situation is only temporary.

I’m very proud and privileged to have been recently elected president of the IWU, which is a progressive union and also a radical social movement that will tackle issues such as workers rights. We will fight for social and economic rights for everyone, Irish and non-Irish. The membership of the IWU is really snowballing and this trip to the United States, which has been wonderful, will certainly help to promote the union.

Question by Hasan Newash, a Palestinian community leader: I know what happened in the Palestinian experience, but I didn’t expect Sinn Fein to move from a revolutionary movement to where they are now. What ended up happening with Sinn Fein?

PC: There’s a clinical term for this – it’s called “response-prevention.” When someone has a phobia (a fear), there’s a behavioral treatment program which helps the person gradually expose themselves to what they’re afraid of – the person’s anxiety levels slowly but surely reduce to the point that they can cope with their fear.

That’s what happened to our community. They were exposed to their fears gradually, a type of “response prevention.” If you had told the same community pre-1994 ceasefire that Sinn Fein would join the RUC, many would have laughed at you. It would have been unthinkable; now it is widely accepted that they will.

Secret negotiations took place [leading to the Good Friday agreement]. Debate was stifled; people were exhausted in battle and didn’t notice what was happening because survival was more important than living. They were coping with constant harassment from British armed forces, RUC and British soldiers, arrests, British death squads smashing into their homes and murdering them as they slept, and were caught up in campaigns against the Prevention of Terrorism Act, strip searches in prison, British brutality.

People got so subsumed in these campaigns and just staying alive, and they put their faith in the leadership of the Republican movement. Of course, in any resistance struggle there is a great deal of secrecy if information is given to the rank and file it is given only on the basis “if you need to know.” In this case the rank and file were deemed not needing to know. Secret negotiations therefore took place and guarantees were given there’d be no compromises.

The whole process was about nothing else, only compromising republican principles. It appears that many former activists no longer have the will to fight (I don’t mean fighting militarily). They don’t seem to have the will to reject the rotten deals – and those who did were vilified and ostracized and were accused of being anti-peace.

For me personally, I couldn’t give up; I feel exhausted at times but energy is rechargeable. I am very excited about our new union. I think of those who don’t have the energy or the will to continue struggling for a better Ireland. I can imagine how their hearts must be broken.

HN: What about the change of mindset in the leadership? Weren’t they transformed – or were they on a course like this from the beginning?

PC: The republican leadership ended up being driven by what can be described as “radical nationalism,” which has nothing to do with the principles of republicanism or socialism. We on the left failed to swing the debate to the left. I believe for the very reasons I’ve mentioned the focus was on the war and surviving. Social issues got lost.

For example, during the conflict a lucrative fishing industry on Lough Neagh, where I was brought up, went into decline. It’s a place where there wasn’t much industrial growth. Fishermen secured good livelihoods – but when that industry went into decline in the 1990s, no one noticed until the war was over. I am currently leading a campaign to save that industry.

Against the Current: Please tell us what your union represents.

PC: We talked about secret negotiations earlier. It has just dawned on me that’s one of the reasons we’re actually building a new union: there is a lack of democracy, openness and transparency in the mainstream unions, just as with the political leaders taking secret decisions. That’s what happening in the Trade Union movement in Ireland.

We have the 26 Counties [the Republic of Ireland] in the South, and the Six Counties in the North. In the South we have Trade Unions involved in a “social partnership” with government and big business to determine workers’ rights, terms and conditions. Hence workers’ rights are severely compromised.

Our union is an independent workers’ union, i.e. outside the framework of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. We have been criticized for this by those who say we will have no voice and that partnership is necessary because it’s an influential seat at the cabinet table. This is nonsense. Whether people like it or not we are now part of Ireland’s trade union movement.

In the North the main Trade Unions are British-based unions, and are in partnership with the Blair government. They print expensive glossy publications; one page opposes the Iraq war and the next page says vote for Tony Blair!

We Established the IWU three years ago. We’re growing; the most significant growth is in places like Cork and Galway, and in Dublin. We are slowly but surely growing in the North and we do have a voice and we intend to have a stronger voice.

ATC: How do people join the IWU, and what’s the process of obtaining recognition and bargaining rights? Here in the United States we have the NLRB process; I assume labor laws in Britain and the Irish Republic are different.

PC: First, you are legally entitled to join any union of your choice. The IWU has obtained a “license to represent” workers [in the Irish Republic]. To gain a license, there is a need to demonstrate that the Union is legitimate with members, and that the union has facilities (office, phone etc.) required to represent those members. In the Six Counties, we require a “certificate of independence,” the equivalent under British law. [Irish and British laws are similar though not identical on these points.]

The IWU has grown out of a small, very forward-thinking radical union that already existed, the Cork Butchers Union. We have expanded that by organizing people on an all-Ireland basis with an interest in workers’ rights, social, economic, political and individual rights. The general secretary is Noel Murphy, who founded the Cork Butchers Union; I was elected President, and I’m responsible for organizing in the Six Counties.

People join a union for security. Like having an insurance policy, you never know when you need it. They want honest representation and democracy. They pay their union fee for representation; therefore representatives should take their direction from the members.

ATC: We have lots of passivity in the unions here.

PC: Yes, that’s happening in Ireland. That is why the IWU was established. People are realizing that they aren’t getting the representation they need, and they are getting demoralized with “social partnership.”

In the South, capital power is growing as are inequalities. The Irish Times reported: “A new survey by the National Economic and Social Forum found that while the country is wealthier than ever, it is also a more unequal society.” (February 6, 2006: 15)

Ireland also ranks 51st among 56 countries in terms of equal opportunity for women. More than 40% of the male working-aged population is low-skilled. Labor force growth is expected to be 0.5% this year compared with 3.5% per year in the past decade.
One of our aims is to unionize areas that aren’t organized; that would include migrant workers, and construction workers. I’m very optimistic about the prospects.

ATC: Are there major strikes in Ireland at present?

PC: The last big strike was the Irish Ferry workers, a month ago (January). Irish Ferries proposed to change terms and conditions of employment, making it easier to displace local workers for a cheaper option – temporary migrant workers, and pay them below the minimum wage. This of course would produce resentment between local and migrant workers, an age-old story.

The workers, who belong to SIPTU (Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union), had a tremendous battle. They generated a lot of support, mobilizing a substantial section of Irish workers, but the mobilization was under the control of the union bureaucracy. The problem for workers is that the union’s strategy did not result in any gain for them or even effective defense of existing conditions. Unfortunately, SIPTU did not manage to secure the rights of migrant workers or Irish workers.

ATC: Tell us about the magazine Fourthwrite, in which you’re also involved.

PC: It’s a quarterly publication with regular contributers who write on social and political issues – a radical magazine that publishes the type of articles not published in mainstream magazines or papers. We print about 2000 copies per quarter. We have a good subscription base, about 1000, many of whom are U.S. subscribers.

We also sponsor events such as debates. Our last event was called “Creating the News They Like.” We had speakers from the Arab and Muslim communities in England, one of whom is a film star and had a leading role in Ken Loach’s latest movie.

It’s an alternative publication that promotes debate – not only in the Republican milieu but more broadly among people who are interested in politics and social issues.

From Conflict to Crisis

ATC: Given your profession as a community psychiatric nurse, I’d like to know what view you get of the society in Northern Ireland in the course of your daily work.

PC: That’s a huge subject. As a community psychiatric nurse, I am on the front line so of speak. This job furnishes me with all I need to know about life, and I feel very privileged to work in Belfast and serve some of the best people in the world.

However, our services are under-resourced. We have caseloads in excess of what’s recommended. It’s a real issue because we deal with the most vulnerable people in society, those with enduring mental illness many of whom are traumatized and brutalized from years of conflict.

Not only are people recovering from years of conflict, they are dealing with high social and economic disadvantage, all of which impacts on health, especially mental health, with very high incidents of suicide.

There was some optimism when the “Power Sharing” Stormont Assembly was established; there are those who believed that sharing power would deliver better policies and better standards of living. I call it “Sharing Responsibility” with no power, for example, closing hospitals with no power to prevent their closure. The British Treasury determines the budget and all decisions are British Treasury driven. The privatization agenda can not be resisted.

ATC: What about the impact on youth in particular? I heard Bernadette Devlin McAliskey some years ago discussing how they were losing the capacity for empathy.

PC: In those areas most affected by the conflict and social and economic deprivation, the life space of the child is structured in trauma and deprivation. That will impact on their emotional development, how they see the world and how they see themselves.
Poverty isn’t just about lack of income; it’s about how people see themselves, it’s about their self-esteem, it’s about dignity, being respected. Not only have our youth lived in conflict situations where they have witnessed murder and the daily grind of poverty and drug infestation, many of these kids are without social, economic or political rights. They are born with the boot in their faces.

They lack empowerment and they lack political leadership. There is no agenda within any mainstream political party to tackle the unmet needs of these people or to empower them. I come in contact with these kids on a daily basis, and I bear witness to utter human despair. They have normalized the abnormal; many cope through drug and alcohol abuse, hence becoming addicts.

There are limited services for young people in need of therapeutic and psychiatric intervention. Instead the politicians call for tougher sentencing, more punitive action rather than a more radical program to rebuild their dysfunctional lives. There’s no vision or plan to tackle this, beyond lip service which usually comes in the form of “We want to build an Ireland of equals” – some more equal than others, one might suggest.

When I trained and worked as a community psychiatric nurse in London, I worked in a large West Indian area, the Broad Water Farm area. It was known as one of the most deprived areas. I honestly thought I had seen it all. When I returned to Belfast I noticed a stark difference in the type of presenting mental health problems. More and more people are presenting with mental health problems, especially in the form of phobias and anxieties, all trauma-related, and there are few services to meet their needs. Traumatized people are like a country on a war footing, always waiting for the next attack and always on guard – many people would probably never have presented with mental health problems if it had not been for the war.

During the war, they had focus and a sense of togetherness. Now with time to reflect and think, they feel the pain they had locked away because they didn’t have time to feel it, nor did they even realize they were being traumatized. I don’t need statistics to tell me about the legacy of the war. I’m on the front line and witness it every day.

ATC: [This followup question was raised when Patricia Campbell returned to Detroit in early May for the conference organized by Labor Notes.] I’m sure you’re aware of a tremendous new upsurge here – which many people are calling our new Civil Rights Movement – for rights and legal status for immigrant workers. Since the economy in the south of Ireland has been expanding, I know there’s a substantial immigrant work force there. Can you tell us about the status of these workers, how they’re treated and how your union works with them, and whether the mass demonstrations in the USA might have an echo in Ireland and more broadly in the European Union?

PC: We have an influx of migrant and immigrant workers to Ireland. Such workers are vulnerable to enhanced ripoff and greed.

The mainstream unions are not tackling the exploitation of these vulnerable workers, as was echoed at the IWU Annual General Conference held in Dublin last month (April). A delegation of Polish workers attended the conference and told the conference the mainstream unions had failed their compatriots miserably. A Polish national was elected to our National Executive Committee and will represent Polish workers.

I have made contact with a leading Brazilian trade union activist while here in the USA. I hope to make more international contacts at the Labor Notes conference, which is the reason I’m here. Making such contacts will enable us to reach the workers coming into Ireland.

The Irish should know more than anybody what it is like to be discriminated and exploited in foreign countries. After all, immigration, exploitation and racism was certainly an Irish experience. The IWU will be very proactive in tackling the needs of such workers.

I visited the grave of Rosa Parks today with comrades from Solidarity. Rosa Parks did not just inspire her own people; she also inspired the Irish Civil Rights movement. Workers’ rights regardless of race, creed or gender are a must for all of us and I’m delighted to witness this new workers’ rising.

ATC 123, July-August 2006