Northern Ireland: Dangerous rise in sectarianism over summer

How can the working class stop the bigots?

The following editorial from the September issue of The Socialist, monthly paper of the Socialist Party (CWI) in Ireland, looks at the recent upsurge in sectarianism and sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland, which included knife killings and many fire-bombings of homes. It also discusses how sectarianism and sectarian politics can be countered by the organised working class.

Dangerous rise in sectarianism over summer

For journalists and political analysts the main news story of the next few weeks is likely to be IRA decommissioning and what impact it will or will not have.

On the ground in the working class communities in the North the real news at the moment are the rise in sectarian tensions and the increase in sectarian attacks.

And it is the latter which gives a more accurate picture of the real state of the peace process!

Over the summer sectarian attacks have become a nightly occurrence. Working class families on both sides have been on the receiving end, with houses petrol bombed, daubed with paint and stoned.

In what has developed into a very dangerous situation clashes have taken place at the sectarian interfaces, especially in North and East Belfast, sometimes involving several hundred people.

While it is possible that the intensity of the attacks may subside somewhat with the summer and the marching season now at an end, it would be wrong to put all of what has been happening down to an outbreak of the usual “summer madness”.

A March 2005 report on sectarian violence issued by the Institute for Conflict Research confirms the view argued by the Socialist Party that the “peace process” in the hands of the sectarian politicians and paramilitaries has been about division, not about accommodation and peace.

It records that, since the 1994 ceasefires, 14,000 people have approached the Housing Executive seeking re-housing due to sectarian or paramilitary intimidation. Many more have just upped and left without going through any official body.

All in all, this report makes depressing reading but it is only recording what most people, from their day to day experience, already know to be the case.

Some commentators put it all down to the political impasse and argue that if the Assembly [currently suspended local ‘power-sharing’ government] was back and “politics was seen to be working” sectarian tensions would subside.

They forget that when the Assembly was functioning the polarisation and the attacks continued unabated. The sectarian parties have a vested interest in maintaining division.

If they reach an agreement it will only be on how the sectarian political carve up they all favour can be administered. It will not represent a single step towards a solution.

Nor do the paramilitary groups on either side offer any way out. They are not always in favour of stoking up the sectarian violence. But they are always in favour of keeping working class people divided. Like the political parties they want a segregated society.

Nor is the State able to provide an answer. The three decades of the troubles showed clearly that neither the police nor the army can overcome the divisions, let alone stop the attacks.

The only force capable of providing a solution, both to the impasse in the peace process and the sectarian attacks, is a united movement of the working class.

There is now an urgent need for a new initiative to unite working class people against sectarianism and for a real solution. Such an initiative would have to come from trade unionists and bona fide community activists.

It cannot be taken hand in glove with the sectarian parties or with the paramilitaries, but in opposition to them.

Just as there have been rallies against racist attacks, rallies against sectarianism now need to be organised, mobilising people from the working class communities and from the workplaces.

These should be followed up with initiatives in the communities to organise people not just to defend their areas from attack, but to make sure that no sectarian attacks are launched from them.

There have been many initiatives like this in the past which have been at least partially successful. The problem has been that they have not been followed up with a concerted campaign to unite working class people to tackle the root causes of sectarianism.

Crucially they have not been followed up politically. A new movement that can unite working class people against sectarian attacks could be a first step to the building of a new working class political party able to offer a socialist solution to the overall conflict.

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September 2005