Turmoil over the issue of the flying of the union flag has now continued across Northern Ireland for six weeks. The protests, blocking of roads and frequent rioting began on 3 December when Belfast City Council voted to fly the flag over City Hall on seventeen “designated days” only rather than 365 days a year. Since then, there have been protests almost every day-including a small protest on Christmas Day. On some nights as many as 80 roads have been blocked. Nearly one hundred police officers have been injured in the rioting. The police have used water cannon and fired potentially lethal plastic bullets and over one hundred protesters have been arrested. On 11 January, protesters launched a wave of road blocks dubbed “Operation Standstill”, which effectively brought Belfast to a halt for two hours, with nearly all buses off the roads. On 12 January the fiercest rioting yet left 29 police injured.
The fact that protests have continued for forty days has confounded many observers and politicians. It is true that the numbers involved in the protests have decreased over the past six weeks. The largest marches to the City Hall have involved one or two thousand protesters, but most roadblocks in local areas have drawn many fewer onto the streets. Some have pointed to the relatively small numbers involved-compared to the 200,000 who demonstrated against the Anglo-Irish Agreement outside the City Hall in 1985, for example, as evidence that the issue is only of concern to a layer of Protestant diehards who want to go back to the past.
It has also been pointed out that the rioting has been confined to a few areas. This is true to an extent. The worst violence has occurred in East Belfast where the local paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) appears to be acting independently of the central UVF leadership. There has been rioting in a number of other areas however, especially Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey.
A “thin layer of unionism”?
It is not just nationalist politicians who have tried to minimise the extent of the disquiet in Protestant areas. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, and First Minister, Peter Robinson, stated that the protestors now only represent a “thin layer of unionism”. Robinson’s party played an important role in kicking off the trouble when it and the second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), together circulated 40,000 leaflets on the flag issue in the run up to the City Council vote. Now the leaders of the main unionist parties are trying to regain control of the situation. They are desperate to simultaneously play the card of sectarian division, in order to maintain their vote, but also wish to play the role of responsible bourgeois politicians seeking to provide stability and social peace.
In a similar way, the newspaper which is most widely read in both communities, the Belfast Telegraph, has argued that Northern Ireland is being “held to ransom” by the renegade East Belfast UVF commander. The Telegraph to an extent represents the views of the business owners of Belfast who are concerned that their profits are being hit by the unrest as shoppers stay away.
To play the down the significance of what is happening is to completely misread (or deliberately misrepresent) the situation. While the total numbers involved are relatively small there is no doubt that the issue has acted as a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with the peace process which has built up over time in the Protestant community. There is real and genuine anger among large layers of Protestants. There is a sense that “everything is going in one direction”, that is, Protestants are losing out to Catholics. In the view of many, Sinn Fein are pushing too hard for concessions. Progressive Unionist Party (the PUP is linked to the UVF) leader Billy Hutchinson argued, “Sinn Fein are acting outside the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”. This is the reason that the PUP have given for reversing their previous conciliatory approach on the flags issue. A banner displayed in the Mount Vernon area of Belfast, where Hutchison works as a community worker, proclaims, “North Belfast Against Cultural Apartheid”. This confused slogan does touch on a certain truth. Sectarian forces on both sides are essentially in favour of what might be termed “cultural apartheid”, or a sharp division between the two communities. Ironically, those who erected the banner are as much in favour of this division as those they criticise.
Extreme right winger Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has condemned Sinn Fein’s “aggressive cultural war”. Jim Allister’s party is small but this assertion rings true for many more Protestants than those who are prepared to directly support him. Many Protestants, including many of the majority who do not belong to the Orange Order and similar organisations, feel that their “right to march” has been curtailed too often and in too many places. Many feel that they are often prevented from expressing their cultural identity, for example through the wearing of poppies around Armistice Day. Many also feel that the economic and social benefits of peace have gone overwhelmingly to Catholics.
Failure of Good Friday Agreement
At the same time, many Catholics continue to believe that they are subject to sectarian discrimination. They hold that they are dealt with more harshly by the police. They believe that they are more likely to be poor and unemployed than Protestants. For historic reasons, reasons of geography and because of the residues of sectarian discrimination, there are still differences between the two communities in economic terms. The poverty rate among Protestants at 19 per cent is lower than the 26 per cent rate for Catholics. In the three years to 2010, on average, 28 per cent of working-age Protestants were not in paid work compared with 35 per cent of Catholics.
The views expressed in each community are sometimes true, or partially true. Sometimes however genuinely held beliefs are simply not true. The reason that such a complex situation can arise is that there are genuine interwoven grievances on both sides. The real problem is that the peace process has failed to deliver for working class or young people whatever their background. The peace process has failed because under capitalism genuine peace, and real economic advancement for working people, is not possible. Under the structures established by the Good Friday Agreement it is assumed that everyone belongs to one or other of two mutually exclusive communities. Under capitalism all that is possible is a sharing out of political power, and a sharing out of poverty and unemployment.
While all sections of the Protestant community have been affected by the flag issue it finds its sharpest expression in the most deprived working class areas. The rioting and the road blocks are in part a distorted form of class anger directed at the unionist political establishment represented in the Assembly and on the Executive.
It is important to identify the underlying causes when any particular issue erupts on to the streets in Northern Ireland. It is also important to distinguish between those who join protests out of a sense of betrayal and anger and forces which are consciously reactionary and are seeking to take the working class back to a bleak past.
‘Ulster People’s Forum’
While the protests have been in large part spontaneous, and have been mainly organised through social media, a leadership has emerged over the past weeks and is attempting to assert itself. On 3 January, the “Ulster Peoples Forum” (UPF) was launched to represent this new layer. Willie Frazer was elected as its spokesman. Frazer has been a strident voice for Loyalism for some years, especially in rural areas. He came to prominence through the organisation FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives) and the ‘Love Ulster campaign’ and in the recent past been associated with the Traditional Unionist Voice. The possibility of Frazer standing in the Mid-Ulster by-election (caused by the recent resignation of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister from his Westminster seat) has now been raised.
The UPF has adopted two key demands: “A return to direct rule because of the failing of our political representatives” and “the Union Flag to be flown from every Council building across Northern Ireland”. Such strident demands are designed to put pressure on the mainstream unionist parties (the DUP and UUP) and to carve out a base for Frazer and his allies. A return to direct rule in the short term is very unlikely though the flag issue, and other issues such as conflict around contentious parade routes, are causing tension in the Stormont Executive.
One possible scenario is an unfolding picture of elements of rural reaction, represented by the likes of Frazer, linking up with urban dissident Loyalism. It is possible that a new paramilitary formation will appear over time, gradually replacing the burnt out and bought off leadership (many of the older layer of paramilitary leaders are now government paid “community workers”) of a previous generation. It seems likely that the mainstream UVF are also recruiting and it may take a more belligerent approach in the coming period. Such a development would cut across any support for a new paramilitary grouping.
The UPF has countered-posed itself to the ‘Unionist Forum’ convened by the DUP and UUP and which also involves the PUP and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG). The Unionist Forum met for the first time on 10 January and established eight working groups. The establishment of the Unionist Forum is a transparent attempt by the DUP and UUP to gain control of what is a confused and fluid situation.
Many unionist politicians have argued that the mobilisation of sufficient numbers of Protestant voters will reverse the flag decision. Some have taken this argument further and raised the question of unionist unity or a single unionist party. Such unity may amount to little more than the DUP swallowing the UUP almost whole. The UUP has been in very serious difficulty for some time. It seems inevitable that it will lose one of its MLAs, Basil McCrea, in the near future, and probably a second, John McAllister. Both may join the Alliance Party, or may continue as independents, or may establish a new “liberal” unionist grouping.
The UVF linked PUP has had a very high profile throughout the protests. It seems likely that the PUP will gain electorally as a result but the degree to which this occurs remains to be seen. It is reported that it has an influx of new members. One of the most prominent, and most articulate, leaders of the protests, Johnny Harvey, previously a spokesman for the new group Ulster Protestant Voice, announced that is joining the PUP on 10 January.
The PUP is resisting moves towards unionist unity which would inevitably disadvantage smaller parties. On 8 January ex-prisoner Winston Rea read a prepared statement on Radio Ulster which appears to represent the views of the UVF and a linked paramilitary group, the Red Hand Commando. He stated that the Unionist Forum represents a way forward but that he and those he represents are in favour of “unionist cooperation”, not unionist unity. He distanced himself from the UPF without attacking the grouping. Billy Hutchinson has stated clearly that the PUP is not in favour of an agreed unionist candidate in East Belfast.
The PUP is displaying a new confidence. It is strident on sectarian issues and is shortly to announce a programme of “cultural counter-attack” and “re-Britification”. Simultaneously it constantly raises issues of class pointing out that all working class people are suffering.
The TUV might have been expected to gain from the flag controversy but it has not been prominent. The party’s main base is in rural areas rather than in Belfast. It is increasingly seen as a one man band though its leader, Jim Allister, makes a considerable impact in the Assembly. The TUV has taken damage in recent weeks as one of its most prominent members, ex rugby international David Tweed, has been convicted of child sex offences, and this may have made it more difficult for it to gain traction.
The Alliance Party has gained marginally in recent elections. Its victory in the East Belfast Westminster seat at the last general election was in large part accidental however. Thousands of Protestant working class voters lined up behind the Alliance Party in order to deliver a bloody nose to Peter Robinson who was mired in a corruption scandal at the time.
At the next election most of this borrowed vote will be lost. Alliance may instead gain Catholic votes who switch from Sinn Fein and the SDLP in order to keep a unionist candidate out. It may also gain from any splintering of the UUP vote, if not the actual disintegration of the party itself. In the event of its demise the UUP vote will go in two directions, the largest part to the increasingly monolithic DUP and a smaller segment to the Alliance.
Situation may deteriorate further
While most of the rioting has involved Protestant youths battling with the police there have been a number of clashes between Catholics and Protestants. These clashes have been particularly sharp at the flashpoint where loyalists returning from city centre protests pass the Catholic Short Strand area. Dissident republican paramilitaries have consciously intervened to stoke the fires of sectarian division “offering” to “defend” the Short Strand. One dissident paramilitary group, the Continuity IRA, warned the UPF not to hold a planned demonstration in Dublin. Dissidents tried to kill a police man with an under-car bomb in East Belfast over Christmas. This attack took place in East Belfast and nearly “succeeded” in not only killing the police officer but also his wife and children. If they had succeeded the situation would probably now be much worse.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein do not issue physical threats or launch violent attacks. Instead both parties encourage Catholics to view this issue as a simple one of “democracy”, often employing strident and sectarian language. In their view, Belfast is now a majority Catholic or nationalist city and consequently the union flag should come down. An extension of this argument is that across Northern Ireland the union flag should come down as each council falls to nationalism. This reflects the argument that demographic change is inexorably moving in one direction. At a certain stage, a tipping point will be reached and the majority of the population of Northern Ireland will be Catholic. Sinn Fein essentially holds that Protestants should “accept reality” and “move on”.
This line of argument displays a profound amnesia. For three generations, Catholics in Northern Ireland refused to recognise the “democracy” of Northern Ireland. In their view, they had been coerced into an artificial statelet and they would not bow down and accept this situation. They were perfectly justified in this stance. Why now do nationalist and republican politicians assume that Protestants must accept the formal democracy of losing their majority position in the North, which, on the basis of capitalism, raises real fears amongst working class Protestants that they will, over time, become a disadvantaged, discriminated against new minority community?
The direction of events over the coming days and weeks is difficult to call. It is most likely that the intensity of demonstrations will continue to diminish, in part because of opposition from many workers to the violence and partly because the aim of the protests - the flag going back on-top Belfast City Hall 365 days a year - is widely accepted to be unachievable. The Unionist Forum may provide a talking shop for a period and draw some support away from the protests.
However, a slow process of dwindling protests is not a guaranteed outcome. If a young Protestant is killed during rioting, perhaps by a plastic bullet fired by the police, or if dissidents succeed in killing a soldier or policeman in one of their intermittent attacks, then the conflict will ratchet up again. It is also possible that the protests may continue at a low level for many more weeks and in time intersect with conflict around contentious parade routes (the “marching season” commences at Easter in early April). Alternatively other unexpected developments may inject new life into the protests. Even if the immediate issue recedes and the protests dies down entirely a legacy of bitterness and distrust will be left.
Role of the trade unions
The picture is in many ways bleak but this can change, and change quickly. Only one force is capable of cutting across any drift towards increased division and conflict - the working class acting as a class in its own interests. The trade unions remain the most significant unifying force in Northern Ireland. The lesson of the last forty years is that the working class, acting collectively and in unison, can make a real impact on events. This applies to industrial and economic issues, of course, but also to the issues which have threatened to tear society apart. An upsurge in class struggle could cut across decisively across recent developments. It is also possible that a certain increase in class struggle may go alongside continuing conflict and tension.
Against the current background of conflict sectarian politicians continue to impose cuts on all workers. Northern Ireland will be hit harder than anywhere else by cuts in welfare payments as the economic inactivity rate for those aged 16-64 in Northern Ireland stands at 26.9%. This is significantly higher than the UK average rate (22.4%) and is the highest of the twelve UK regions. The abolition of the public sector body which is responsible for housing, the Housing Executive, was announced by DUP minister Nelson McCausland, on 9 January. The Assembly continues its deliberations over the future of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) but clearly intends to make sharp cuts in this vital allowance, with an announcement probable around Easter.
Working class opposition to the cuts has already been expressed on the streets and in the workplaces. Late 2010 saw a student movement against rises in tuition fees and the attacks on the EMA. On 26 March 2011 there was a trade union demonstration against the cuts in Belfast. Unison members in Northern Ireland walked out on 5 October 2011. Most importantly on 30 November 2011 three million workers belonging to twenty eight unions walked out across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The impact of the strike was the greatest in Northern Ireland, as the public sector is larger and because transport workers came out (80,000 workers came out).
Since 30 November there has been a prolonged lull in the class struggle. Industrial action directed against not just the Coalition government in London but also against the coalition which is implementing the cuts at Stormont will help forge unity between working class communities and will challenge the sectarian parties. It is not sufficient however to simply wait for industrial action on social and economic issues.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of workers and young people are opposed to the violence. There is a widespread sense of unease that Northern Ireland is being dragged back to its more violent past. In each community there are many who are consciously anti-sectarian and who see clearly the role of the sectarian politicians. The majority of both Catholics and Protestants however are divided on the issue of the union flag.
So far, there has not been an opportunity for the working class as a whole to give voice to its opposition to the violence. There have been two “peace” demonstrations in Belfast city centre each drawing crowds of about 1000. The organisers have insisted that the protests are non-political. Such an approach will not succeed in mobilising working class people from either community. The issues are very much political. The trade union movement is the only force which is capable of mobilising both Protestants and Catholics in a way that gives confidence that the issues which they face are recognised and being addressed. This means recognising and addressing the aspirations and fears of each community. Above all, however, it means seeking to unite working class people in opposition to their shared misery.
Twenty years ago the Socialist Party pioneered an approach on the issue of contentious parades which focused on recognising the rights of each community, but also on the over-arching right of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into conflict. At the height of the conflict around the Drumcree parade, in the mid-1990’s, our voice was isolated. Nevertheless we took our arguments to the eye of the storm speaking to groups on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown and the Bogside in Derry. Over time, the approach we advocated became widely accepted. A similar approach should be taken now.
There are real and genuine grievances in deprived Protestant working class communities, such as in the Lower Newtownards area. There have been a series of clashes on the peace line between this area and the similarly deprived Catholic Short Strand. While residents of the Newtownards Road have the right to protest over the flag issue, the residents of the Short Stand have the right to live their lives free from harassment and attack. At present, they are left in an exposed position on a regular basis as poorly stewarded and provocative marches come past their front doors.
What is a problem now in this area has the potential to spread across Belfast to dozens of other sectarian ‘interface’ areas. Hoping that this does not happen is not enough. The trade union movement has to weigh up how and when it can intervene to cut across a drift towards greater conflict. Such an intervention is not easy and should not be approached in a light-minded fashion. A clumsy or ill though through initiative could even make things worse, especially if it resulted in the unions being portrayed as taking one or the other side in a sectarian conflict. Equally it is of vital importance that the unions do not in any way appear to bolster the position of sectarian politicians who are part of the problem not part of the solution.
Despite the immense difficulties, an opportunity for the union movement to intervene may present itself in the coming days. The moment may be a result of a sudden worsening of the situation, for example, if a death occurs, or alternatively in the context of sectarian forces losing momentum. Discussions amongst active trade unionists should begin immediately so that activists are well-placed to act when necessary. The unions are best placed to bring together workers in the workplaces and communities to discuss contentious issues, as well as burning class questions, and where possible initiate cross-community, anti-sectarian committees that can counter sectarianism, including sectarian attacks on either community, and offer a class alternative.
A political alternative is needed
To date, the unions, through the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, have simply issued a statement on the flag protests. This statement is not adequate to the situation and lacks sensitivity and a rounded out understanding of the issue. The lack of a clear and resolute leadership from the unions in the struggle against austerity, and their refusal to move in the direction of providing a political alternative to the sectarian parties, worsen the situation for working class people.
A growing layer of workers and young people are completely disillusioned with the main parties. The constituency with the lowest turn-out in recent elections is in fact East Belfast, precisely the area with the worst rioting. Many of those who stayed at home are repulsed by sectarian politics. However, if a political alternative is not built, then reactionary, sectarian groups can develop further and gain support. A new party of the working class, which actively combats sectarianism, is urgently needed.
A new party will only develop a stable mass base if it adopts the socialist policies which are capable of delivering real change for every working class community in Northern Ireland. Ultimately only a socialist transformation of society is capable of delivering real change and sweeping away the poison of sectarianism forever. A strong and growing Socialist Party, with deep roots in the workplaces and the communities, is essential to build the ideas of socialism and to take them to wider and wider layers of the working class in the years ahead.