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Answers needed from Unite union over its banner at republican march

By Nelson McCausland

Published 07/04/2016

Trade union Unite
Trade union Unite

The trade union Unite has a community section, and back in November it hit the local newspaper headlines when it organised protests outside the Sinn Fein office in west Belfast and the DUP office at Woodvale. There were also protests in Newry, Ballymoney and Londonderry.

These protests were said to be against welfare reform. Afterwards Ciaran Cunningham, a representative of Unite Community, went on BBC Radio Ulster to explain what it was all about.

However, it was then revealed that Cunningham had been convicted of gathering information for the Real IRA and had been a member of Republican Network for Unity.

That revelation damaged the reputation of Unite, and further damage was caused again more recently, this time in Newry.

Over the Easter weekend there were two republican commemorations in the city, reflecting the fragmentation within Irish republicanism.

The Newry 1916 Easter Commemoration Association held its event on the Sunday, with speakers such as Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy (below).

However, there was another commemoration on the Saturday organised by Armagh, Newry and Mourne Centenary Committee 1916.

This parade assembled at the notoriously named Raymond McCreesh Park in Newry and the participants then marched through the city to St Mary's Cemetery, where wreaths were laid at the republican plot. There were also speeches by Tommy McKearney, Pat McNamee and Davy Hyland.

Tommy McKearney was a member of the Provisional IRA in east Tyrone and a hunger striker. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of a soldier and released in 1993 after serving 16 years of his sentence. Since then he has parted company with Sinn Fein.

Pat McNamee was a Sinn Fein MLA for Newry and Armagh from 1998 to 2003, but is now an independent republican.

Davy Hyland was a Sinn Fein MLA for Newry and Armagh and a Sinn Fein councillor on Newry and Mourne District Council, but he left the party over policing and stood as an independent republican in the 2007 Assembly election.

The advertisement for this event also highlighted a function in "John Mitchell's" (sic) Irish National Foresters club in Newry, with music and refreshments.

There is a certain irony in this, as the organisers of the 1916 commemoration view themselves as radical republican socialists, while John Mitchel was a staunch defender of slavery in the US.

A number of people who happened to be shopping in Newry on the Saturday afternoon were astounded to see that, in the parade, there was a banner of the Newry branch of Unite Community, bearing the name and logo of Unite, carried by four women. There they were, marching in a republican parade.

So what is going on? There are some members of Unite who are unionists and there are also some members of Unite who are nationalists.

So, should a trade union branch be officially represented in a republican parade? I think most responsible trade unionists would say not.

Trade unions should focus on representing the interests of their members, not participating in a republican commemoration of the 1916 Easter rebellion.

So, who authorised the carrying of the Unite banner in a republican parade? Was this a decision taken by a local branch in Newry?

How does the Northern Ireland leadership of the trade union view it? And what are the rules of the union about such situations?

The inclusion of a Unite banner in a republican parade is damaging to the reputation of a trade union that draws its membership from right across the community in Northern Ireland, and there is an urgent need for Unite to reflect on such incidents and take some action.

Trade unions have an important role in representing the interests of all their members, and what happened in Newry undermines the inclusivity of one of our leading trade unions.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

Belfast Telegraph

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