The scenes from the streets of Belfast and other towns across Northern Ireland during the weekend have provided a stark warning that the ’peace process’ could at some point unravel and be quickly replaced by widespread sectarian conflict.
Intense rioting erupted in Protestant working class areas of Belfast, the surrounding towns of Bangor, Lurgan, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey, Larne, Ballyclare and Glengormly as well as Antrim, Derry and Ballymena. The riots were sparked by the refusal of the Parades Commission (a Government body appointed to decide on the routes of contentious parades) to allow an Orange Order parade to pass through a section of the mainly Catholic Springfield Road area of West Belfast. Burning barricades were erected where violent clashes broke out with the police and army.
Over 1,000 soldiers and 1,000 police were deployed to quell the rioting led by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defence Association) loyalist paramilitaries. Over 50 live rounds were fired by loyalists and were answered with live rounds from the army. Up to 500 plastic bullets were fired by soldiers and police. An innocent resident was shot in the shoulder by the army in North Belfast while several rioters are reported to have been hit by live and plastic bullets.
Police issued warnings for people not to travel by car after dozens of hijackings of vehicles took place to create barricades. Hijacked vehicles were also used as battering rams on police stations. In Bangor, Co. Down, a bus was hijacked and every passenger was robbed before the bus was set alight on a housing estate. A 22 month-old child fractured his skull after loyalist rioters attempted to hijack a car in Belfast and then threw a large rock through the window. Petrol and blast bombs were also thrown at police from the roofs of houses and at police stations.
Clashes at interface areas
Sectarian clashes also took place at interface areas throughout the North. The night before the Orange Order parade in West Belfast, a 29 year-old Catholic was almost kicked to death by a gang of Protestant youth close to the Short Strand, an interface area in East Belfast. Sectarian attacks also broke out in Derry. The Fountain estate, which is the last Protestant estate left on the city-side of Derry, was attacked with petrol bombs and sectarian attacks on both Catholic and Protestant homes occurred in the Waterside area of the city. Similar attacks took place across the North.
This type of widespread rioting has not been witnessed in Northern Ireland since the Orange Order were refused to march through the Garvaghy Rd in Drumcree in the late nineties. Since then, demographic changes have created new flashpoints of sectarian conflict across the North. As Catholic communities continue to expand and enter mixed or Protestant areas, new fronts are created. The ’Troubles’ have not disappeared but have changed from one form into another. The armed struggle of the IRA failed to defeat the British state. Likewise, the British state could contain not destroy the IRA. A mixture of military stalemate, war-weariness and opposition from workers, led to the calling of the ceasefires in 1994. Since then, the so-called ’peace process’ has led to an unprecedented level of sectarian polarisation. The Troubles have developed into a drawn-out war of attrition over territory. It is this conflict over territory and control over areas that has led to violent confrontation over the routes of parades.
The parades issue present a conflict of rights. Sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and Ancient Order of Hibernian have a right to march, but residents also have a right to oppose their opinions and views being trampled upon. Face-to-face negotiations should take place between elected resident representatives and parade organisers to come to agreement on contentious parades. Stewarding of parades and residents should be carried out by representatives of both residents and marchers with no interference from the state. The overriding right though is the right of the working class not to be dragged into a sectarian conflict over contentious parades.
For working-class communities, both Catholic and Protestant, the peace process has delivered little. Attacks on jobs, services and conditions continue as well as increased sectarian polarisation. Increasingly, Protestant working class communities feel completely alienated from the political process. The recent statement from the IRA that it is to ’stand down’ was immediately followed by the dismantling of British army barracks and watchtowers as well as the disbanding of the (locally recruited British army regiment) Royal Irish Regiment. The rise of Sinn Fein to become the largest nationalist party in the North, their increasing support in the South and a rise in Catholic confidence has heightened a sense of insecurity in Protestant working class areas. Together with this, the old manufacturing sector that once supplied many Protestant areas with more secure jobs is now almost extinct. These conditions together with a growing hatred for careerist unionist politicians and the lack of a mass working class socialist alternative has led to the current mood in Protestant areas.
However, workers across the sectarian divide have also been repelled by these latest developments. The majority of working class people are still opposed to a return to the dark days of the Troubles. But without a mass socialist party and a lead from the trade union movement, sectarian conflict will continue to threaten to draw Northern Ireland into a carnival of reaction far worse than ever before. On January 18th 2001, 100,000 workers took to the streets after postal workers went on all-out strike after the UDA killed Danny McColgin a Catholic postal worker. This excellent display of workers unity forced the UDA to withdraw it’s death-threats against Catholic workers and pushed back the sectarians on both sides. A similar approach should be made by the trade union movement again in response to recent sectarian violence.
The Socialist Party in Northern Ireland is building support within the trade union movement and in Catholic and Protestant working class communities for unity of the working class and socialist ideas. By building campaigns such as the We Won’t Pay Campaign against the introduction of water charges, working class communities can be united across the sectarian divide. Part of this process will be to confront and expose the sectarian political parties and paramilitaries who are opposed to unity of the working class. On a capitalist basis there can be no solution. Only on the basis of a struggle for socialism can sectarian division be broken. That is why the need for a new party of the working class based on the trade unions and genuine community groups and with a socialist programme must be built now.