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Northern Ireland riots sparked by legacy of British imperialism

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As Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland face unrest, Simon Basketter explains why the protests are taking place now, and what they mean for Britain’s imperialist interests
Issue 2750
Cars smashed through segregation walls in Lanark Way, Belfast and were set alight
Cars smashed through segregation walls in Lanark Way, Belfast and were set alight (Pic: PA)

A double-decker bus has been hijacked and set on fire. Young people have hurled petrol bombs at police.

Almost a hundred police have been injured in the worst sectarian violence in Northern Ireland for eight years. Most of the rioters are young—some as young as 12.

Last Saturday was the 23rd anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that officially ended 30 years of conflict, known as “the Troubles”. But unrest and violence has flared up from time to time ever since.

The supposed spark was the decision not to charge the leaders of Sinn Fein for breaking Covid-19 regulations last June by attending the funeral for Bobby Storey. Storey was a former top member of the Irish Republican Army.

Unionists have portrayed this as a sign of political favouritism. But in the same month a “protect our statues” protest was left alone by the police.

Notably there were 70 fines issued to people who attended a socially distanced Black Lives Matter protest.


In January the cops broke up a memorial service attended by 30 people who were commemorating the victims of Loyalist assassination at Sean Graham’s bookmakers in 1992.

So there are political choices by the police and state on who to bully and when, but not quite in the way Loyalists portray it.

In contrast Gerry Carroll, a People Before Profit Northern Ireland Assembly member, said, “We believe the way forward is to build working class unity against those conditions of poverty and against the parties who implement them, and then rely on stoking tensions to maintain their voter base.

“We want to see an end to the senseless violence and the beginning of a cross community campaign which fights for working class communities across the divide.”

The Tories’ version of Brexit has played an important part in ­increasing tension.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was a last minute compromise to get Brexit through. It effectively creates a trade border down the Irish Sea—something Boris Johnson said would never happen.

In November 2018, Johnson attended the DUP conference. He said, “We would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.”

What’s behind the hard border debate in Ireland?
What’s behind the hard border debate in Ireland?
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For all the flag waving, the ­interests of Unionists come low down on the British state’s priorities.

An opinion poll in February indicated that the DUP’s share of the vote had declined to just 18 percent. Other Unionist parties are likely to garner their votes.

It is in this context that the DUP decided to whip up sectarianism, despite being the people in charge of administration of the new border.

They met with the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group of paramilitaries, to encourage them to mount a campaign against the Irish protocol.

Anti-protocol graffiti appeared, followed by marches of masked men. And, away from the riots Loyalist paramilitaries last week ordered the removal of Catholic families from a housing estate in Carrickfergus.

There were attacks on three homes that they believed had Catholics in them. Some of the occupants are understood to have since fled the area.

This is a traditional route for Unionist parties. First, encourage sectarianism. Then watch as it escalates to violence.

And then call for calm and hope to gain face as the respectable defenders of the union.

The riots are not so much about a funeral or trade tariffs.

Rather they are an expression that the entrenched sectarianism created and nurtured by Britain in Northern Ireland hasn’t gone away.

Sectarianism used to divide and drive up poverty

Sectarian bigotry is inseparable from the whole Northern Ireland set-up. Ever since Britain’s rulers partitioned Ireland a century ago, Northern Ireland has been riven with sectarianism—from the police to the judiciary, housing, education and jobs.

The violence of the Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict. By the mid-1990s British governments had realised that they could not defeat the IRA by force.

Britain’s rulers wanted to stabilise Northern Ireland. So they pushed Unionist politicians into accepting that peace talks had to take place—and that Sinn Fein had to be part of the process.

The peace in Northern Ireland is not based on drawing Protestants and Catholics together, but on policing people apart.

The consensus reinforces segregation by insisting that opposed “communities” must be represented by politicians who fight for one group against the other.

Bigots in the DUP use Brexit to whip up vile sectarianism
DUP bigots use Brexit to whip up vile sectarianism
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For instance, everyone elected to the Assembly has to identify themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. The result is managers in Northern Ireland earn 20 percent more than their counterparts in Britain—while average private sector earnings are 10 percent lower.

The number of “peace lines”—a euphemism for segregation walls—and “interface areas”—neighbourhoods where sectarian tensions and violence are high—has grown since 1998. Some 90 percent of social housing estates in Northern Ireland are segregated. And the poorer you are, the more likely your estate is to be segregated.

According to socialist and academic Kieran Allen, “The median wage of Protestants and Catholics is now exactly equal with workers from both denominations earning an average of £10.58 an hour in 2017.

“However, while there is an equality between Catholics and Protestants within Northern Ireland, it is more a case of equality of poverty.”

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