The sight of hundreds of protesters carrying Union Jack flags tends to be associated in England, Scotland or Wales with marches by the BNP or the English Defence League. In Northern Ireland it is now impossible to drive through any city, town or hamlet without finding part or all of it bedecked with massive Union flags.
Over the last two months Belfast and all of the North have seen practically daily protests about the Union flag, some ending in riots all featuring vicious sectarianism on the streets.
The protests started on 3 December after a vote in Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag over City Hall only on 18 designated days a year – the Queen’s birthday and so on. Sinn Fein had wanted the flag taken down altogether, but in the end supported the “designated days” compromise put forward by the “moderate” Alliance Party.
A Loyalist protest outside City Hall erupted into violence minutes after the motion was passed. Rioting also broke out in East Belfast. The protesters had come onto the streets in response to 40,000 leaflets slamming the Alliance distributed across Belfast in a joint operation by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) activists.
The leaflets accused the Alliance of “backing the Sinn Fein/SDLP position that the flag should be ripped down on all but a few days”. It urged people to tell the Alliance, “We don’t want our national flag torn down from City Hall. We can’t let them make Belfast a cold house for Unionists.”
The focus on the Alliance Party arose not just from the City Hall vote but because the Alliance’s Naomi Long had defeated DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson in the 2010 election. The shock result had little to do with flags but reflected disgust at newspaper revelations about “Swish Family Robinson’s” luxury lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense.
Robinson and now-disgraced wife Iris, who was also an MP, had claimed over half a million pounds a year in salaries and expenses from Westminster, and had tried to claim twice for the same expenses on a regular basis. Robinson had claimed £755 for a briefcase and his wife had tried to claim for a £300 fountain pen. Working class DUP voters suffering the brunt of austerity measures were fuming.
There had also been a raft of revelations about broader corruption in DUP-controlled councils, particularly Castlereagh in East Belfast, where the Robinson family had close, lucrative ties to property developers. This followed other revelations that both Ian Paisley senior, the founder of the DUP, and his son, Ian Paisley junior (also a leading DUP politician), had profited from links with property developers.
The loss of East Belfast was traumatic for the DUP. They set out to use the flags issue to stir up Protestant hostility to the Alliance Party. While the Alliance offices – and even councillors’ homes – were attacked by mobs at the start of the protests, Loyalist paramilitaries weighed in behind the DUP and UUP inspired protests and changed tack towards more generally disruptive tactics. Hence the rash of road-blocks.
Death squads of the British state
While today’s Loyalist paramilitary gangs emerged in the mid-1960s as a reactionary response to the civil rights movement demanding equality for Catholics, the roots of sectarianism go right back to the Plantations of the 17th century, when racist depictions of the native Irish as “savages” were employed to justify seizing their land. At the end of the 18th century there were frequent clashes between Irish (Catholic) peasants and the English (Protestant) landlords.
The landlords then promoted an alliance between themselves and Protestant yeomen (independent farmers) against the Catholics – with the Orange Order as the main mechanism for cross-class Protestant integration. As industry developed, the Orange Order moved into the towns and into Belfast where it operated to tie Protestant workers to Protestant bosses and encourage them to look down on their Catholic fellow workers. The Orange Lodge became the place to secure a skilled job – so such jobs were open only to Protestants. From time to time the British government armed the Orangemen to put down rebellions.
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was (re)formed in 1966 in response to commemorations of the 1916 Rising by Irish nationalists; before the year was out, it had killed two civilians – a Protestant and a Catholic. The other large Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), was formed in September 1971.
In its first year it killed more than 30 Catholic civilians. Loyalist paramilitaries are not, as they claim, a protest equivalent of the IRA. They are pro-imperialist and pro-state – gung-ho supporters of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. From their inception there have been allegations of collusion with the forces of the state. Since the peace process began, clear evidence has emerged that the relationship went further than collusion. Loyalist paramilitaries were actively promoted by the British state as they went about their grisly sectarian business.
In July 1972 the British army’s general officer commanding, General Harry Tuzo, dispatched a paper to the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, suggesting that the growth of Loyalist paramilitaries should be quietly promoted. The wording of the paper implied the creation of a “second front” against the Provisional IRA. “Vigilantes, whether UDA or not,” Tuzo wrote, “should be discreetly encouraged in Protestant areas to reduce the load on the security forces.”
This suggestion wasn’t entirely new. A month earlier up to 8,000 masked UDA men armed with iron bars and cudgels confronted British troops in the Shankill Road area. The British commander of land forces, Major General Robert Ford, arrived to negotiate with the UDA in the back of a Saracen armoured car. They struck a deal whereby the UDA and the British soldiers conducted joint patrols of the area.
The same paramilitaries, with the help of British army intelligence and the arms and expertise of the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) carried out a proxy war, assassinating targets such as solicitors Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson and over 1,000 other innocent civilians.
Unsurprisingly, they have always had links with fascists, first with the National Front and Combat 18, then with the BNP and most recently with the English Democrats. One link between the BNP and English Democrats is Jim Dowson, who fell out with the BNP over money, became a leader of the English Democrats, and has addressed a number of the flag rallies. Dowson moves between Scotland, Northern Ireland and England setting up anti-abortion and fascist groups.
Jobs for the boys
Despite the peace process and the “Patten reforms” which saw the effectively all-Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) change name and badges to become the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), for weeks the police gave Loyalist protesters an easy ride. This showed the extent to which Northern Ireland remains a sectarian state. In contrast to protests by students or anti-war protesters, police stood by and allowed main roads to be blocked by small groups of teenagers.
Loyalist paramilitaries have delighted in telling their facebook audience that they “haven’t gone away, you know” (echoing Gerry Adams’s 1995 quip about the IRA). They are using the anger incited by the DUP/UUP leaflets for their own purposes. These include recruiting young people to paramilitarism and gaining funding for their “community projects” – in other words, jobs for the boys.
Most community groups in Catholic working class areas have for years been firmly controlled by Sinn Fein – in part a pay-back for the Provos’ ceasefire. Loyalist paramilitaries aim at a similar situation in “their” areas. While Sinn Fein has used manoeuvring and political influence to gain control over community groups, Loyalists have tended to use intimidation. For historical reasons, linked to their loyalty to the state, community organisation in Protestant areas is less developed than in Catholic areas. So fewer jobs for the boys – unless rioting can bring millions into the areas to “restore peace” and deal with “Protestant alienation”!
There are good reasons for working class Protestants to feel alienated – but none likely to be helped by the flag protests. One of the most striking features of poverty in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years has been the way Protestant working class areas have steadily climbed up the deprivation figures. So, while Catholic areas were highly over-represented in the 10 percent most deprived areas 20 years ago, today about 40 percent of the most deprived areas are Protestant. There are many reasons for this: the engineering and other manufacturing jobs that used to provide relatively well-paid, secure employment in Protestant areas have gone. And educational disadvantage hits the Protestant section of the working class, especially boys, hard – though all children in North Ireland are poorly served by a selective education system.
So Protestant young people are less likely to get a minimum-wage job in the many call centres that have come to Northern Ireland than their better-educated Catholic counterparts. Agency work is often the only option – jobs that earned £12 an hour ten years ago but now attract only the minimum wage and offer no security. Even before the recession median wage levels in North Ireland generally were just 85 percent of those in Britain – and over £15 a week less than the next lowest-paid region of the UK, the north east of England.
Thus Protestant working class areas have been moving up the deprivation “league”, but not because Catholic areas have seen poverty levels reduced. The convergence is the result of the wages for all workers being pushed down. Northern Ireland is marketed across the world by the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, as a low-wage area. More than half Northern Irish households are dependent either on benefits or working tax credits, while about a quarter are doing very well and can still afford foreign holidays and second homes.
The protesters are right, then, that the Protestant working class has not benefitted from the peace process. But neither has the Catholic working class. For historical reasons, things remain worse in Catholic areas, which are concentrated in the west of the region where wages are lowest and services poorest – mirroring the North-South divide in England.
What’s happening on the streets was predictable. The 1998 Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement was a recipe for institutionalised sectarianism. This is seen best at Stormont, the region’s Assembly, where all Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have to declare themselves Unionist, Nationalist or Other. The First Minister is always from the largest Unionist or Nationalist party, the Deputy First Minister from the largest party on the “other side”. Every election consists of two parallel contests to elect the party seen as the best champion of “their own” community. If you decide you’re Other, your role in politics is automatically diminished – when it comes to voting in the Assembly on issues requiring “cross-community support”, for example.
Either Unionists or Nationalists can trigger this mechanism, which means that a measure has to be passed either by weighted majority, with at least 60 percent of all MLAs supporting the motion, including at least 40 percent designated Unionist and 40 percent designated Nationalist. Or it may pass in accordance with the parallel consent formula, when at least 50 percent of members who vote support the motion, including at least 50 percent Unionist and 50 percent Nationalist.
This way of running things has had a poisonous effect, as sectarianism trickles down towards the street.
In Belfast you can see the visible growth in sectarianism in the built environment itself. The number of “peace walls” has more than doubled since the Agreement was signed. The level of fear, and not just in “interface” areas, has not fallen. In interface areas it has increased. The fear is of physical attack, not just a generalised fear of the “other”. Now, as sectarianism is again ratcheted up, fear is growing that we are headed back to “the bad old days”.
In spite of all the talk of “moving forward”, politics is gridlocked with the DUP effectively in charge. The DUP is openly neoliberal, a party in which Sarah Palin would feel rightly at home. It opposes gay rights, is virulently anti-abortion and doesn’t think there is any poverty in Northern Ireland. A good proportion of its MLAs and government ministers are members of the Caleb Foundation- an evangelical umbrella group that promotes creationist views, urges its politician members to “implement god’s law” and “jokingly” calls itself “the Caleban”.
In early January, while the flag protests raged, the DUP’s Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, announced the abolition of the Housing Executive, one of civil rights most important legacies and with it, the privatisation of all public housing and the certain loss of hundreds of public sector jobs. McCausland is also pushing the Welfare Reform Bill – already passed at Westminster – through the Assembly, introducing Universal Credit, the Personal Independence Payment, the “bedroom tax” and so on, on top of cuts to benefits and tax credits.
This represents a massive assault on working class living standards. Sinn Fein is going along with it. Like the Lib Dems, it opposes the cuts – then vote for their implementation.
The cuts affect Protestant workers as well as Catholic. These are the issues which people need to be on the streets about. The absence of a united working class voice has been sadly missed.
Two rallies for peace at Belfast City Hall attracted around 2,000 people each. The numbers could have been much bigger if the political basis had been different. The trade union movement organises more people – Protestant and Catholic – than all the Loyal Orders and comparable Catholic groups put together. It has the capacity to organise the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland who are in despair over the latest eruption of sectarianism, but so far has failed to do so.
The fight to defend jobs and tenants’ rights by stopping the abolition of the Housing Executive provides the sort of issue and opportunity needed to bring workers together as a counter to the growth of sectarianism.
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