Northern Ireland: Widespread protests continue over union flag on Belfast City Hall

A socialist analysis

Widespread protests have taken place across Northern Ireland since Belfast council voted through restrictions on flying the British union flag on the City Hall, two weeks ago. There were around 80 separate protests on Monday 17 December, alone. Clashes between protesters and police have taken place in many areas.

The following statement by the Socialist Party (CWI in N Ireland) examines the flags dispute and the wider related issues, and how socialists propose building working class unity against the sectarian-based parties and their austerity policies.

The political establishment have portrayed 2012 as somewhat of a turning point for Northern Ireland, with society moving beyond the old sectarian divisions – we have been told this is ‘our time, our place’. As if to mock the chic advertising campaigns, the dispute around the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall has demonstrated that this is a myth. It has demonstrated, once again, that the ‘peace process’ has failed – Northern Ireland remains deeply divided and sectarian tensions lurk beneath the surface. In particular, this dispute has highlighted the simmering discontent which exists in the Protestant community.

On Monday 3rd December, Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag at City Hall only on designated days. The original motion – put forward by Sinn Féin [the main republican/nationalist party] and supported by the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party – a middle class, nationalist party] – called for it not be flown at all but was amended by the Alliance Party [a largely middle class, ‘cross community’, pro-union party]. All unionists on the council opposed the move.

The controversy around the flag at City Hall was consciously pursued by Sinn Féin and the SDLP – they were not responding to a groundswell of pressure within the Catholic community for the flag to be removed. This was in part an attempt to bring divisive issues centre stage in order to distract from the right-wing austerity agenda which all the main parties are committed to – a tried and tested method of sectarian politicians on both sides.

Executive parties united on austerity

Is it simply a coincidence that this issue was catapulted into the headlines in the wake of the Assembly Executive passing the Welfare Reform Bill? This was a draconian attack on both in and out-of-work benefits which will hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest – the Assembly’s most generalised attack on the working class to date. The nationalist parties, in particular, clearly felt under pressure on this issue and feigned opposition, voting against the bill in the Assembly although they did not use their veto to prevent its passing.

When the motion was put forward, the unionist parties were more than happy to follow the nationalists’ lead and responded in kind. They distributed around 40,000 leaflets in Protestant areas of Belfast in the run-up to the council meeting, calling on people to put pressure on the Alliance Party to keep the flag flying year-round. In part, this was an attempt to undermine the Alliance Party’s electoral development in Protestant areas. People were called onto the streets.

The unionist parties’ agenda was as cynical as that of the nationalists. While they reacted with indignant uproar to the suggestion the flag should only be flown on designated days in Belfast, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – the largest unionist party) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) on Lisburn City Council quietly agreed to the same arrangement. They exploited feelings on the issue in order to bolster their own standing. It is clear, however, that this issue has touched a nerve with a broad swathe of the Protestant community in a way that other issues – perhaps even parades – previously have not.

On the night of the vote, a crowd of up to 1,600 protested outside Belfast City Hall. Some broke through security lines and attempted to disrupt the meeting. Since then, we have witnessed a sustained wave of protests, roadblocks, rioting and intimidation across Northern Ireland on a scale not seen since the height of the Drumcree crisis [The Drumcree ‘standoff’ is a dispute over a yearly Orange Order parade in the town of Portadown, which first erupted in the 1990s]. Loyalist paramilitaries have clearly played a central and sinister role.

The Alliance Party has been a focus of protests on the issue – they are seen as being ultimately responsible for the decision to remove the flag as they hold the balance of power on the council and could have prevented it. As well as peaceful pickets and protests, Alliance offices and members’ homes have been attacked. Death threats have been issued against politicians, including East Belfast MP Naomi Long as well as Sinn Fein, SDLP and DUP representatives. Fifteen masked men attacked an unmarked police car guarding Naomi Long’s constituency office with a petrol bomb. The Socialist Party condemns these attacks and threats from paramilitaries.

The main parties have used this sensitive issue as a political football in an utterly reckless manner, which had heightened sectarian tensions and impacted upon the lives of ordinary people. While they don’t want the stability of the political structures to be undermined, the politicians will manipulate feelings on this issue in order to serve their narrow interests. Having let the genie out of the bottle, however, they will not so easily get it back in. The issue has now got beyond their control and taken on a life of its own. It can now become a conduit through which all the tensions and frustrations in society are expressed, in the same way as parades have been.

Without a hint of irony, Sinn Féin representatives, such as Gerry Kelly, have called for a police clampdown, not just on rioting and violent behaviour but on peaceful protests. Meanwhile, the unionist parties – like Pontius Pilate – are attempting to wash their hands of any responsibility for the violence. They continue, however, to fan the flames of the dispute. A unionist ‘working group’ – involving the DUP, UUP, TUV [Traditional Unionist Voice] and PUP [Progressive Unionist Party] – is to be established in order to develop a common campaigning strategy on the issue. The unionist politicians will use this body to try to control protest, turning the tap on and off at their convenience. This may prove more difficult than they think.

Alienation in Protestant areas

The strength of feeling on this issue in the Protestant community reflects a trend that the Socialist Party has long pointed towards. While the vast majority of Protestants want no return to the ‘Troubles’ [the conflict in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the 1990s] and oppose the recent violence, a feeling exists that the ‘peace process’ has been a long series of concessions to nationalism and that a steady erosion of the Protestant community’s cultural identity is under way, with the march of events leading – implicitly – in the direction of a capitalist united Ireland where they would become a disadvantaged minority. These frustrations are exacerbated by the triumphalist attitude of Sinn Féin and the armed campaigns of the ‘dissident’ republican groups.

This feeling of insecurity is reinforced by demographic changes reflected in the recent census figures – for the first time since the state’s foundation, Protestants are now in an overall minority (48%) while the Catholic community (now at 45%) continues to grow as a proportion of the population. The removal of the union flag from City Hall resonates deeply with these fears and frustrations.

There is also a perception that the Catholic community has materially benefited from the ‘peace process’ – in terms of jobs and services – at the expense or, at least, to the exclusion of the Protestant community, which has been rocked by the steady process of de-industrialisation. Often, this is expressed by disenchantment and anger towards the DUP and UUP who have ‘let the community down’ and ‘given in to Sinn Féin’. PUP leader Billy Hutchinson has been prominent in the protests and clearly hopes that posing as a more strident political force, more in touch with the Protestant working class will resurrect his party’s fortunes.

These sentiments cannot simply be dismissed, as some on the left seem to think. They have developed in the context of a political arrangement which has institutionalised sectarian division, not broken it down. The sectarian carve-up between the main parties in the Assembly Executive has been reflected in polarisation on the ground – a tendency towards greater segregation in housing, a war of attrition over territory in some areas, the creation of new interfaces and ‘peace’ lines and conflict over cultural issues.

The flying of flags is a hugely sensitive and potentially explosive issue. In the turf war between the communities which has been a feature of life across Northern Ireland to some degree during the period of the ‘peace process’, flags – along with murals, painted kerbstones and other symbols – have been used in both communities in order to mark divides between communities, claim territory and intimidate.

Flags have very different connotations to each community. To most Protestants, the union flag represents their British identity and positive values which are perceived to go along with it while, to Catholics, it represents British rule, the history of Unionist domination, discrimination and state repression. Similarly, for many Catholics, the Tricolour represents their Irish identity, freedom and resistance to oppression but, to Protestants, it is symbolic of the Provisional IRA and the years of the armed struggle and now the ‘dissident’ republicans, and represents a threat to their identity and security.

The flying of these and other flags is an expression of the sectarian division in our society. Simply curtailing the right to display them, however, would do nothing to decrease tension. In fact, the opposite is the case – where the state has attempted to forcefully remove flags, it has often provoked explosive reactions and tended to harden attitudes. Individuals and communities have the right to express their cultural identity, if they so choose. At the same time, people also have the right not to be intimidated.

These two rights cannot be reconciled over the heads of the working class by politicians who have a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division and preventing the communities from uniting around their common interests. As we have seen, they can cynically manipulate this issue to suit their own interests. Neither can solutions be achieved through crude majority decision-making, where whichever side has the most votes in the sectarian headcount wins out.

The question of the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall is particularly sensitive. From the point of view of most Protestants, it is a given that the British flag should fly in the municipal seat of Northern Ireland’s capital. For most Catholics, it is a relic of Unionist domination. The key to finding a solution is direct engagement between working class communities – communities in which the majority are opposed to a return to conflict – rather than politicians who misrepresent and manipulate their attitudes.

Over and above the right to express cultural identity and the right not to be intimidated, there is the right of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into sectarian conflict. The opposition of the majority of the working class to moves in such a direction has stayed the hand of hard-line elements and placed limits on how far conflict around parades and other issues could develop in the recent period. This resistance to conflict, however, can be worn down by a prolonged period of sectarian controversies and rising tensions.

For working class unity against the sectarian parties cuts

The Assembly’s austerity programme is now entering a new phase, which will see sharper attacks on jobs and public services. Hoping for a recovery in the world economy which has not materialised, the politicians put the bulk of the £4.3 billion cuts in years three and four of the budget. To date, only around 20% of the cuts have been introduced but the effects are already devastating. The health service is at breaking point and lives are being lost, schools lie in disrepair and unemployment is mounting, particularly among young people. Public sector job losses and pay freezes (in reality, pay cuts) are reducing people’s spending power, gutting the weak private sector here. Many high streets are now like ghost towns. Much worse is to come if the politicians get their way – thousands more jobs losses, more school and hospital closures, and more poverty.

Opportunities to challenge the sectarian parties will be posed but there are also dangers in the situation. The cuts can provoke anger and united resistance from the working class in the form of industrial action, community campaigns and, potentially, political developments. On the other hand, the Executive parties will attempt to frame the cuts in a sectarian manner and whip up tensions around issues such as flags, in order to distract from their right-wing agenda. For a period, we can see both sectarian tension and class struggle develop simultaneously. This was the case in the 1980s, when there were huge battles against Thatcher’s policies but sectarian tensions also mounted. Ultimately, however, one will become the dominant trend.

Trade unions must build sustained, mass opposition to cuts

The trade union movement has huge potential power. It is the largest organisation in society, dwarfing any sectarian group. It is the mass organisation of the working class, both Protestant and Catholic. It could act as a crucial counter-weight to sectarianism, articulating and fighting for the common interests of the working class and exposing the bankruptcy of the sectarian parties. Unfortunately, this huge potential power has not been realised due to the weakness of the movement’s leadership over a period of decades.

While the huge public sector strike on November 30th 2011 gave a glimpse of the potential power of the working class, the union leadership has not developed a fighting industrial strategy to take on the austerity agenda of Stormont and Westminster. They have failed to give workers confidence that there is an alternative to austerity and that the cuts can be defeated. This has allowed the five main parties to implement the cuts without their thoroughly anti-working-class character being fully exposed. Meanwhile, the poverty and hopelessness which austerity is breeding can fan the flames of sectarian division.

The recent conflict has given a glimpse of the dangers inherent in the situation. Those involved in the recent rioting – as at Ardoyne in the summer – are overwhelmingly young men. With 25% youth unemployment, a generation of disenfranchised young people with no hope of a decent future and no memory of the Troubles can begin to swell the ranks of the paramilitaries, loyalist and republican. In this sense, the struggle to turn the unions into fighting, democratic organisations is part of the struggle against the threat of sectarianism.

When sectarian conflict erupts, the trade union leadership largely confines itself to pious ‘tut-tutting’ and vague appeals for peace. A fighting movement which had real authority in working class communities could use its influence to prevent sectarian tensions and conflict escalating. In the past, we have seen trade union activists call walk-outs and strikes which have been successful in forcing paramilitaries to lift threats against workers. If such a fighting approach in challenging sectarianism were taken by the leadership of the movement, it could have a huge impact.

For decades, the leadership of the union movement has obstinately resisted real moves towards the building a new party of the working class. The absence of such a party – based on workers, women, young people and genuine community activists – is a crucial weakness in the situation and gives sectarian forces a monopoly in shaping the political debate.

While providing a political alternative to the capitalist austerity, such a party would also act as a forum for workers and young people from both communities to strive towards solutions to issues such as parades, flags, security and cultural expression. In the context of developing struggle against the Assembly Executive, such a party could help to break down sectarian division and lay the basis for a genuine peace process, based on uniting working class communities, not sectarian politicians.

In the next period, workers and young people will enter into struggle against the Assembly – against cuts to EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance], hospital and school closures, job losses, pay cuts, for women’s rights, equality and so on. Many will draw the conclusion that none of the sectarian parties represent their interests. Opportunities to build a new working class party will be posed and they must be seized upon in order to build a force which can genuinely challenge sectarian division.

In order to consign sectarianism to the history books, the capitalist system must also go. Internationally, we see how the poverty and want created by this system breeds division, conflict and bigotry. A new party of the working class should fight for a socialist future, where the massive wealth which exists in society is taken out of the hands of a tiny elite and instead used in a planned and democratic way in the interests of all.

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December 2012