Northern Ireland: Conflict over parades erupts on streets again

Trade unions need to actively combat sectarian threats and attacks, in the workplaces and in the communities

[See also: "UNITE AGAINST SECTARIAN CONFLICT", leaflet of the Socialist Party (CWI Northern Ireland)]

There was fierce rioting in a number of areas of Belfast, and in several of the surrounding towns, in the five days following the annual July 12th Orange Order parades. The rioting began when the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) enforced a Parades Commission ruling that an Orange Order parade should not be allowed to pass the Catholic Ardoyne area on its return from the main parade. (The Parades Commission is a governmental body which rules on whether contentious parades should be curtailed in some way, allowed to proceed or prevented from taking place).

Over 70 members of the PSNI and many civilians were injured in the trouble. Petrol and blast bombs were thrown. Water cannon were deployed by the police and dozens of baton rounds were fired. The worst trouble occurred when Orange Order members and supporters confronted the PSNI but there were also clashes between Catholic youth and Orange marchers.

The Orange Order had initially called for prolonged protests, suggesting a stand-off where the march was halted that would last for days. Late on the 12th however it suspended protests, probably concerned about the negative publicity arising from the rioting and its inability to control the situation. The Order may have been taken unawares by the robust response of the PSNI, gambling that Secretary of State Teresa Villiers would over-rule the Parades Commission, as she is able to if she is advised by the PSNI that it cannot maintain order. The Order has now announced weekly parades along the original banned route which will inevitably be halted. The first of these passed off peacefully with evidence that the Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force was acting to prevent trouble breaking out.

Many Protestants and Catholics believe that the reason the parade was prevented from proceeding past Ardoyne was the rioting by Catholic youth in the area when previous parades were allowed through over the last several years. This perception is impacting on the consciousness of wide layers in both communities.

Increasingly Sinn Fein influenced residents groups are being challenged for supremacy in Catholic areas by dissident Republican influenced groups. The former will sometimes countenance compromise, though their approach remains based on promoting division. The latter have certainly drawn the conclusion that compromise is both wrong and unnecessary and that confrontation and conflict work.

Many in the Protestant community, not just those who are members of the Orange Order, see the Parades Commission as one-sided. In working class areas a general sense that “we have no more to give” has developed. Many young Protestants are becoming foot-soldiers for Loyalist paramilitary groupings precisely for this reason.

War of attrition is leading towards greater conflict

This latest development represents a turning-point. Now that one major parade has been banned from passing Ardoyne, others will certainly be banned in the future even if some are allowed. When parades are allowed there will be a mobilisation to stop them. The precedents from previous areas of sharp conflict are clear. When after years of conflict parades were banned from the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown there was no going back. The conflict over parades is at heart a battle for control of territory and when territory is ceded it is not easily retaken. The Parades Commission state that contentious parade routes can be re-opened if the Orange Order and other marching groups talk to residents but residents groups have no reason to talk once a parade route has been closed off.

Short-term agreement over the route past Ardoyne cannot be entirely ruled out but it is very unlikely. An initiative headed up by United States diplomat Richard Hass is to seek solutions on a number of contentious issues in the autumn, including on the issue of parades, but few hope for a breakthrough.

The logic of the situation is that whilst conflict around Ardoyne is likely to continue, perhaps for some time, other areas will increasingly be in the frontline. The next major area of contention is likely to be an area close to Belfast city centre through which 120 marches a year take place. This contentious route is however fundamentally different from the others. It is close to the Lower Shankill area, the heartland of Loyalism and the base area of the leadership of the UVF, and the headquarters of the Orange Order is just yards away. There is the potential for conflict in this area not just once or twice a year but 120 times a year.

The current war of attrition is leading nowhere except in the direction of greater conflict. The violence this summer, and the prolonged trouble over the flying of the union flag over the winter and spring, are stark warnings for the future. In 2013 “peace” is maintained by dozens of permanent “peacelines” (walls and barriers separating communities), thousands of armed police and the local enforcement activities of paramilitary groups interested primarily in control of “their” areas. When all this is insufficient then temporary peacelines are thrown up and hundreds of extra police are drafted in from England, Scotland and Wales.

No peace dividend, but cuts

The Peace Process has not delivered jobs or any relief from poverty for either Catholics or Protestants. The cuts being implemented by both the British government and the Northern Ireland Assembly are deepened the despair and alienation which fuel sectarianism. The main parties base themselves on sectarian division and feed off it.

Ultimately division and conflict on the ground puts the stability of the ruling Executive (made up of the five largest political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly but dominated by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party) into question. The main parties are determined to hold the Executive together for now but cannot escape the logic of the sectarian tension they deliberately foment indefinitely.

The Socialist Party has long argued that competing rights are at stake in the conflict over parades. The Orange Order is a right wing organisation which is sectarian in complexion and intent. Despite this it has the right to march just as the many other sectarian groups and political parties in Northern Ireland have the right to organise and march. Recognising this right is in no way an acceptance of the policies or positions of sectarian forces, on both sides of the sectarian divide, which exist to deepen the division of working class.

Local residents have the right to object to provocative parades. A clear distinction has to be made however between residential areas, such as housing estates, and main roads and town and village centres in this regard. The situation is more complex when main roads skirt residential areas but the principal remains the same -residents must recognise the need to “share” main roads which are arterial routes for both communities. The hard line position, not always openly expressed but often apparent in the opaque statements of residents groups, that there should be “no Orange feet” on this or that road, is not a negotiating position.

Right of the working class not to be dragged into sectarian conflict

As well as the rights of each community, expressed separately, there is the more important right of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into serious sectarian conflict over the issue of parades. This right is not an abstract question but represents the wishes and aspirations of the majority of the working class and youth who yearn for a better future but who can often see no way in which this can be realised. The position of the Socialist Party on the parades issue has been isolated at times but in many ways has come to be accepted by wide layers. This is precisely because it represents the aspirations of the many and because the organic unity of the working class has not been broken despite decades of violence and the betrayals of the trade union leaders.

The long-term approach of the Orange Order – that it can simply march where it chooses without negotiation – is unacceptable. Agreement must be reached around the frequency and conduct of parades, including who takes part in and accompanies parades. Often it is drunken and abusive crowds following parades which cause the most trouble. Local residents must allow the possibility of parades when seeking negotiations – there must be something to negotiate. Each side should steward its own supporters to ensure peace. When the police come into areas it almost inevitably increases tension and the risk of violence.

Only the workers movement – primarily the trade unions – can provide a real and viable alternative to sectarianism and conflict. If the trade union movement were to seriously mobilise its quarter of a million members in a struggle against the cuts, an issue which unites Protestant and Catholic workers, this would allow the dynamic of the situation to swing in the direction of class struggle and class unity. Trade union action on the cuts alone however is only an indirect and limited challenge to sectarianism. The unions also need to actively combat sectarian threats and attacks, in the workplaces and in the communities, though united protests and strike action when necessary. In the past such action was successful in cutting across the drift to more widespread and deeper conflict on a number of occasions.

Socialist Party members have moved motions at the recent conference of NIPSA (which organises in the public sector and is Northern Ireland’s largest union with 45,000 members) and at the Irish regional conference of the Unite union preparing the way for united action to counter sectarian threats and attacks. In each case the motion was passed by a large majority. A similar motion was passed by the conference of Northern Ireland’s student movement, again moved by a Socialist Party member.

Action by the unions against the cuts and against sectarianism are vital but not enough alone. A new mass party of the working-class, which actively combats sectarianism and works to settle contentious issues in the interests of the working class as a whole is urgently needed. And such a party, by posing a dynamic socialist alternative to the status quo can over time destroy the base of the sectarian parties and sweep them away. The trade union movement has an essential part in bringing such a party into being. The Socialist Party has an essential role to play in making the case for such a mass party in every struggle of young people and the working class.

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August 2013