Sectarianism in Belfast. What’s new?

On July 12 this year a loyalist flute band marched past St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Donegall Street near Belfast city centre.  They stopped at that particular point by “pure chance” and started walking round in circles playing a tune known as the Famine Song, which contains the line “the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”  This song is sung by supporters of Rangers Football club in Scotland and refers to the large Irish and predominantly Catholic immigration into Scotland from the 19th century onwards.  It has been found to be both sectarian and illegal by the Scottish courts.  According to the band and their political apologists they were merely playing a pop song.  Perhaps it was again mere chance it doubles as a sectarian anthem.  Perhaps also those allegations of an attack on a cameraman filming this Orange version of the X Factor are also mistaken.

On this basis the Parades Commission, a quango established by the British government to adjudicate on contentious parades, decided the band could not take part in the loyalist parade last Saturday, which was to pass the same church.  The other bands were also only allowed to march by a single drum beat past the church.

Unionist politicians were outraged and issued a statement, along with assorted flute bands, denouncing the Parades Commission, saying they were running out of adjectives to describe it , so they gave some nouns instead – “arrogance”, “incompetence” and “general ignorance”. This statement was signed by prominent members of the Stormont Government who claimed that they could no longer let the Parades Commission do untold damage to the peace process. “Violence” would potentially ensue, they said.

So on Saturday the loyalist flute band at the centre of events marched as normal and played the normal sectarian tunes that are the staple of these ‘kick the pope’ bands, as did many of the rest. The normal sectarian insults were hurled, which are surprising only to those terminally stupid or naive.   The police did nothing that anyone could notice to prevent this.  Well, not exactly nothing: there is a picture of one policeman using a loudhailer to tell the passing bands that they were really not allowed to do what they were doing.  This robust action will no doubt be followed by the police warning burglars by megaphone that they are breaking the law when they are seen to break into someone else’s house in broad daylight. Through the Police Federation the police later complained of being caught in the crossfire, presumably between those intent on breaking the law and those who were, well, how shall we say it, wanting it upheld?

There were minor scuffles and one apparent loyalist from Scotland was arrested for running through a nationalist protest, although this was blamed by one unionist politician on a republican.

So we have a loyalist coat-trailing exercise in bigotry, defended by the most senior unionist politicians who warn of violence, which stokes up the adrenaline of the street level bigot but allows the unionist politician to deny any responsibility when the lighted match touches the blue touch paper.  The police wring their hands and the nationalist politicians talk about getting it all sorted out through talking.  You have to be very, very young not be aware that this record has been played a thousand times before.  So what’s new then?

Well what is new is supposed to be – everything!  We have a new peace process, a new political settlement, a new Government and a new coalition between the “two sides”.  Belfast has a new skyline with lots of new visitor attractions welcoming tourists, which is still a relatively new concept to Belfast.  We have new cafes and restaurants and art galleries and a new generation too young to remember ‘the troubles’ and which just wants to live in peace and has no time for this sectarian stuff.

But we have been here before.  Belfast in the 1960s was also a ‘happening’ city with a burgeoning night-life whose young generation was hailed as no longer interested in the sectarianism of the past.  The sixties brought new life, hope and light even to Belfast and not just the streets of London or San Francisco.  New housing was being created that was demolishing the slums that had no inside toilet and entries that doubled as permanent rubbish tips.  Some of this new corporation housing promised mixed estates and a new Unity Flats was built at the bottom of the Shankill Road only a couple of hundred yards, if that, from St. Patrick’s church.  Unity Flats was so called because it was to contain both Protestant and Catholic tenants, sharing the one space in harmony.

We all know, or at least have some vague idea, what happened at the end of the sixties.  That swinging decade that even moved in Belfast was very new and modern but Belfast was incapable of accepting civil rights, including fair allocation of housing and jobs and equal voting rights.  Instead it burst into violence, with Orange parades which were hyped up by unionist politicians and a police force that could not subject violent bigots to the normal restrictions of the ordinary law.  Of course this violent explosion hasn’t happened yet and in my view isn’t going to happen, not yet at least.

The mutual exhaustion of the contending political forces has not yet ended and been reversed.  The unionist leaders are attempting to exert pressure that might eventually usher in their preferred model of unionist-only rule but they are not in a position to force a confrontation that would see the British Government accede to their demands. It is not impossible that a violent eruption might occur that goes beyond unionist plans but it needs a realistic objective and the aim of getting Sinn Fein out of government has not yet become the unifying campaign theme within unionism and loyalist organisations that is required.

Instead the provocative and vitriolic sectarianism endorsed by unionist politicians in the highest offices of the Stormont administration erodes the faith of nationalists in the new deal. The approach of Sinn Fein to the recent events has been relatively muted and resembles nothing so much as the old SDLP approach which so many nationalists rejected by supporting the old (republican) Sinn Fein.  Here too however there is no unified project beyond staying in office and doing nothing to jeopardise the electoral prospects of Sinn Fein in the South.

The real republicans can attempt to take advantage of the disillusionment with the Sinn Fein reaction to the sectarian provocation and can build up their support base but what is their political project?  In so far as it simply involves a renewed armed campaign it only strengthens the ideological hold of the peace process even while more and more people, subconsciously at first, begin to wonder when exactly this process, like every other, is going to end.  The traditional republican policy isn’t credible except as a form of protest but outside of an overarching strategy this republicanism isn’t in a position yet to mobilise a large political opposition.

A large scale sectarian provocation might accelerate these trends and the planned large loyalist parade on 29 September past the same church certainly has the potential to be such a provocation.  It might at the least drive home the lessons of last Saturday if it goes ahead as the parade did then.

The condemnation by two Protestant church leaders of the sectarian behaviour of the loyalist bands shows how vulnerable the loyalists are to criticism.  It is their solutions and that of the Catholic Church that is the problem.  They both want to set the rulings of the Parades Commission as inviolable.  The Catholic Church is worse because it calls for special measures to apply when the parades pass a place of worship conveniently setting themselves up as victim, potentially privileged  protection in future while turning a blind eye to the fact that a sectarian march is a sectarian march no matter where it passes. Its vitriolic bigotry is no more acceptable a hundred yards from a church than right in front of it.

What is needed is an anti-sectarian campaign that is unafraid to name sectarianism when it sees it and is not seduced by the siren calls for equality of traditions, including mutual respect for each other’s culture.  There can be no equality for a tradition based on sectarian supremacy or respect for a culture soaked in bigotry.  Such a campaign would target not just loyalist parades but the sectarian policy creeping into housing policy and the recent discriminatory employment practices of Sinn Fein.  It would challenge the trade unions to take a principled stand and, at least in principle, should be capable of uniting much of the small left. The ULA could take the lead on this in the South by making it an issue on the floor of the Dail as the clarion call for an all-island campaign.  To do otherwise is to turn one’s back on sectarianism while claiming this as the means of opposing it.

The main task would be to rip away the protection of the current sectarian arrangements that are more and more revealing their true colours by refusing to subordinate anti-sectarianism to the demands of the peace process, however this is defined.  What sort of peace is it that allows, even sanctions, the displays of sectarian bigotry on display in Donegall Street on Saturday?

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