Ireland North: Sectarian violence worsens in Belfast

Over the last few days, sectarian conflict has increased in various parts of Belfast. Both sides have blamed each other for starting the recent trouble. But what is the real cause of the outbreak of sectarian clashes? What can working class communities do to stop sectarian attacks? How can decent public housing for all be won?

Below we publish an article by Peter Hadden from Belfast, taken from the Socialist Voice (paper of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland), which was written before the recent outbreak of violence in East Belfast, since which the situation has deteriorated significantly.

Any idea that the problems of sectarian violence along interface areas was something unique to North Belfast has been shattered by the fighting that has erupted in the Madrid Street area in the east of the city.

Large-scale sectarian fighting involving loyalist and republican paramilitaries has led to several civilians being shot in the last week. The fighting has also forced a number of families living along the interface areas between Protestant and Catholic communities to flee their homes.

Meanwhile nothing has been resolved in North Belfast and clashes are once again commonplace at a number of the flashpoint areas. If this continues it could be yet another long hot summer in Northern Ireland.

The violence in East Belfast has been accompanied by the usual pattern of accusation and counter accusation. Republicans are pointing the finger at the loyalist paramilitaries, in particular the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), while loyalists are blaming republicans for whipping things up.

Last Wednesday, Northern Ireland First Minister, David Trimble, accused the IRA of organising the violence in east Belfast while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams accused Trimble of taking a partisan position over the rioting. The election of Sinn Fein councillor Alex Maskey as the first republican mayor of Belfast, to the outrage of unionist politicians, will do little to cool the situation.

But the question of who started the violent clashes – who hurled the first abuse or threw the first stone, is not really the point. The real issue is why there is such a tinderbox of anger that any small incident can ignite nights of full scale rioting.

The underlying reason for the violence is the lack of jobs, the decline of services and the lack of affordable housing for people in the inner-city working-class communities.

The proposal to erect a barrier in Madrid Street, which is being promoted by politicians, especially by Ulster unionists like Reg Empey, was one of the triggers that set off the fighting. A row developed over where it would go – specifically whether it would be placed closer to the Protestant Templemore Avenue end of the street so that a number of empty houses formerly occupied by Protestants would end up on the Short Strand side of the barrier.

Like so much else of what has happened recently the violence is East Belfast is at bottom a battle over territory. There is a real problem of housing in this and other areas. But this is not the fault of the people who live in either community.

The real problem is the absence of any programme of public sector house building by the Housing Executive [the public housing government department]. Meanwhile, property companies who intend to build luxury apartments as part of the ‘Laganside development’ are buying up land. Dunloe Ewart, for example, has been able to buy the site of the Howden Sirrocco plant adjacent to Short Strand and will probably make a fortune on its £23 million investment.

Working class communities need housing, jobs and facilities

The gentrification of the inner city areas means that the people who have lived in these areas through the Troubles can no longer afford to stay in them. But rather than Protestant and Catholic working class people fighting it out for the space that is left, it would be far better to mount a joint campaign to demand that public housing be built. The Sirocco land should be taken over by the Assembly so that the Executive can build decent homes for the people of the area on this site.

The brutal response of the police, the RUC/PSNI [Royal Ulster Constabulary, now renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland], in raiding homes and batoning residents in the Short Strand demonstrates that the police and the state are incapable of protecting people from attack or coming up with any solution.

The only way to halt the attacks is by mobilising people from the working class communities in joint action to stop what is happening and to fight for jobs, houses, decent facilities and services in the areas.

The trade union leadership, together with some community activists, is attempting an initiative in North Belfast. So far £80,000 has been raised and a debate is taking place as to how this money should be used.

Schemes have been suggested to take kids out of the area. These are laudable but are no more than what the voluntary sector has been doing throughout the Troubles. The best use of the trade union money would be to set up structures to link trade unionists in the area with genuine community organisations in a campaign to stop the attacks and to fight for the funds for houses and a proper development of the area.

Such a united campaign in North Belfast, East Belfast and elsewhere cannot be carried out hand-in-hand with the sectarian politicians or paramilitaries. These organisations are deliberately stoking up tensions and suspicions and peddling their one-sided version of events to keep people divided.

Ultimately, if the sectarian division is to be eradicated the political stranglehold of these organisations will have to be broken. A united campaign under the umbrella of the trade unions could be the first step to a new working-class party capable of doing just this.

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June 2002