Northern Nationalism in Denial

untitledWednesday’s Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ betrays the exasperation of many at the continued widespread disruption and violence caused by loyalist protests.  Its front page headlines with ‘Arrest the loyalists who are taking us back to a wasteland’.  Inside, their columnist Brian Feeney excoriates the unionist leadership and their hypocrisy and mendacity.  He dismisses their ‘unionist forum’, which has been called by the unionist political leaders to unite all shades of unionism, and claims that they no longer rule the state, including the police, as they did in the past because “of a raft of legal changes which have gone through in the last 25 years guaranteeing equal rights for all.”  To paraphrase: Unionists will have to accept the reality of equality with nationalists and sit down with them to sort out their problems.

Meanwhile, on that day’s Dublin-based ‘The Irish Times’ its Northern editor reports on the flag riots and the new Unionist Forum and states that “most people will wish it good luck.”

What we have here is three examples in which reality, which stares one in the face, is ignored and sacrificed through ideological wishful thinking.  Let’s take them in turn.

First ‘The Irish News’ calls for the arrest of the loyalist protestors, expressing the now widespread view that they have broken the law and caused widespread disruption and intimidation with seeming impunity.  Inside it has a hard-hitting editorial which never mentions the only people who can carry out their demand and who have so utterly failed to do so – the police.

The new Police Service of Northern Ireland was supposed to banish into history the partiality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary but there is no apparent difference in the way the new PSNI has treated loyalist protest from the old RUC.  In the past this would have led to criticism of the latter but now nationalism supports the PSNI but is faced with the uncomfortable fact that the PSNI appears in no respect to be fundamentally different in its approach.  The paper’s editors are left calling on the new emperor to put on clothes while still cheering him and recoiling from pointing out he hasn’t got any on. It is unable to truly call the police to account or to explain its role in facilitating the protest because to do so might raise uncomfortable questions why all the “raft of legal changes” arising from the peace process have changed so little.

Which brings us to Brian Feeney, who has the same problem, because the last three weeks show that the Northern State continues to treat the two communities differently.  It is hardly conceivable that republicans could have caused the disruption of the past three weeks without vigorous suppression by the State.  So how can he claim that equality is a reality that unionists are refusing to accept?  Just who is blind to reality?

Even if the proposed Unionist Forum is simply an attempt to regain the political initiative by the Unionist parties who set the whole protest off, it signals that only sectarian organisation is capable of political effect.  The joint call by Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein for an end to the protests achieved absolutely nothing.  Brian Feeney calls for the unionists to sit down with nationalists apparently oblivious not only to the fact that they have been doing so throughout the crisis, in fact for over five years but that they have actually been in government together for all this time.  During these years they were supposed to be drawing up a joint anti-sectarianism strategy which was to include how to deal with such issues as flags.  So the clichéd call for the two parties to get together to sort out their differences now has to ignore that this has been a failure.  What’s the alternative now then?

Finally we have the pious declaration of the ‘The Irish Times’ Northern editor that most people will wish the Unionist Forum good luck.  As we have said, if it is to be more than a device for the unionist leaders to regain control, in which case it simply gives control back those who caused the protests in the first place, it will be a sectarian construction uniting the unionist political parties with the political fronts of the loyalist paramilitary outfits who have been organising much of the violence.  The policy of promoting these forces by the state became news again when it was revealed that ex-prisoner groups were to get £4 million in state funds through what has been widely described as a “slush-fund”.  The smell coming from it was such that the neither Peter Robinson nor Martin McGuinness wanted to be publically associated with it despite it coming out of their Office.  Fashionable talk about reconciling the combatants doesn’t look so smart when one set is promoting riots and intimidation in the streets and seemingly getting paid for it.

What we have therefore is Irish nationalism in denial of the reality that stares it in the face.  It is of course possible to deny reality for a long time even while this becomes more and more uncomfortable.  But it is not possible to do so forever.  Its smug assumption that what we have witnessed is unionism in crisis ignores its own role in covering for the Unionist political leaders who kicked the protest off and who they must now cling to as the way out of the protests. It is reflected also in its support for the police who have “facilitated” the protest.

If unionism is in crisis then in a system which is a joint sectarian carve-up so is nationalism.  Most nationalists may not believe it but that too stares them in the face when they can’t get home from work and can’t go Christmas shopping in Belfast city centre.

The 2011 census results in Northern Ireland


The results from the 2011 Northern Ireland census have been eagerly anticipated because the Northern Ireland state was created, and continues to be justified, by a sectarian head count.  Had partition not been imposed on the island of Ireland either through the independence of the whole island or through continued British rule the census would be interesting but would not in itself raise the question of the state’s existence or legitimacy.  That the census raises both and by virtue of the religious affiliation of the people who live in it is in itself a condemnation of the Northern state.

The census revealed that the Protestant population has declined to 48% in 2011 from 53% in 2001 while that of the Catholic has increased to 45% from 44%.  In order to arrive at these figures the 17% who said they had no religion, or the religion was not stated, were asked what religion they were brought up in.  A sort of ‘you can run but you cannot hide’ from religion no matter how much you might want to.  This is similar to employment monitoring which asked not what your religion is but what community you are perceived to belong to. The latter leads to mistakes if you happen to read ‘The Irish News’ in your lunch break and show a partiality to Glasgow Celtic when discussing football in the office but have never ever been to your first holy communion.

In the latest census 5.6% say they neither belong to nor have been brought up in any religion, up from 3% who said they belonged to neither religious category in 2001.  The census of course is silent on whether anyone brought up in any religion, or who professes to be a member, has complete faith in that religion’s doctrines, respects its institutions and cadres, accepts and identifies with any of its associated cultural practices (like going to mass) or follows its leadership in any way.  So even on this the census raises more questions than it answers.

The question that an answer is sought for most is the political views of the population, which has always been strongly linked to religious affiliation.  The same problems arise in making any firm assessment of what this information means.  First political views are read across from identification of nationality rather as if the latter determined the former in some over-riding way.  However one can identify oneself as British and be appalled at the way sectarianism seeps from every pore of society and one can define oneself as Irish and still reject all the isms that supposedly accompany it such as Catholicism and nationalism.  The full range of political positions in between are absent from the census as is beliefs on how ones political views are to be put into action.

The census is full of boxes and people, even in Northern Ireland, do not fit into them, or if they do they often do not do so neatly.  The census itself is a means of forcing them to do so but because they don’t debate is now raging over what the figures mean.

So 40% said they had a British only national identity, 25% an Irish only identity and 21% a Northern Irish only identity.  It was possible for example to tick two boxes and say you were both British and Northern Irish, which was ticked by 6.2%; 5% were none of these nationalities.

It is the combination of the religion and nationality results that has raised most debate.  Are those that say they are Northern Irish mainly pointing to the fact that they are Irish but from the North, or simply as a matter of fact citizens of the Northern State, or are they saying that they recognise a separate Northern Ireland nationality that  may or may not thereby warrant a separate state?

Commentators have noted that a large section of the population that are Catholic have not identified themselves as Irish but probably as Northern Irish and some no doubt as British.  This information will be released later.  From this it might be judged that even if they are culturally Irish (whatever that means) they are either happy with British jurisdiction or might be, given certain conditions.  In any case they might not, if asked to in a referendum, vote for a united Ireland.  They are what has been described by First Minister Peter Robinson as Catholics who support the union and who the Democratic Unionist Party could canvass for support. Many in this group however currently vote for nationalist parties – either Sinn Fein or the SDLP.

This however shows only the limitations of deriving conclusions from figures in a census.  Robinson has made reference to a majority of Catholics who support the union.  He has also prominently supported loyalist bands parading past a Catholic Church at which one band had previously stopped and marched round in circles playing a sectarian song.  He also called onto the streets the loyalist mobs that have protested against the reduced flying of the union flag over Belfast City Hall.  This has resulted in violent demonstrations, attacks – particularly on the Alliance Party – and death threats.  Loyalist mobs have repeatedly blocked roads or carried out violent attacks.  They have wandered round Belfast City Hall with union flags singing sectarian songs associated with old and new Glasgow Rangers football club supporters and burning Irish tricolours.

The unionists have done this on the basis that the union flag is their flag, a symbol of unionist and Protestant identity.  The Catholics whom Robinson supposedly seeks support from are therefore being told to accept that the trappings of state are those of a different religion and alien political tradition.  The party traditionally associated with the pretence to a non-sectarian union with Britain is the Alliance Party which the DUP and loyalists have made a main target of their attacks.  So much for a non-sectarian Northern Ireland.

This week has also witnessed another report on the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane which revealed massive collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the state.  The report, despite it being inadequate, has yet again revealed the widespread use by the British State of the most extreme sectarian bigots to kill anyone who gets in its way.

The report revealed that the forces of the British State in the shape of the army, police, security service and top level officials were all instrumental in murder.  The prominent Home office junior minister Douglass Hogg set the scent by declaring, after briefing by the police, that certain lawyers were unduly sympathetic to the IRA and legions of later government ministers and politicians did their bit by strenuously denying claims of collusion.  The report is unable to say how high up collusion went but is nevertheless sure that there was no overarching conspiracy.  The Finucane family have pointed out that those most damned are dead as are the organisations most criticised.  We are expected to believe that all this is in the past.

Unfortunately state collusion with loyalism never ended.  The treatment of widespread loyalist protest over the past week or so has revealed yet again the partial attitude of the police to loyalist illegality and violence.  The new police force declare that there is no evidence of the loyalist paramilitary leadership being involved while it is impossible to deny that the protests have been organised by these same organisations. The distinction between leadership and organisations is introduced to protect the leadership.

So we have the unionist movement claiming that the symbols of the British State are Protestant and another exposure of how this state has worked hand in glove with the most extreme bigots to kill those entirely engaged in lawful activity.  In the past week the widespread but relatively small protests have been allowed to cause considerable disruption where, had it been republican protest, it is almost certain they would have been suppressed.

In other words the State to which Catholics are more and more assumed to owe some loyalty to and to identify with has been found, both through its most fervent supporters and its officially authorised defenders, to be guilty of the most rabid bigotry and violence.  Therefore even if the former is true, and more Catholics are prepared to accept it, political developments may be such that is doesn’t matter what some people believe to be the case, it is what is actually the case that will matter.  In politics as in everything else people are free to believe what they want but they are not free to make what they want actually be the case.

While the census results cannot be read simply to determine and predict political developments, and they cannot even be confident in population projections, the figures revealed have their own political impact.

For a state set up on the basis of a sectarian head count that head count is important.  The publication of figures showing the Protestant population is no longer an absolute majority and the gap between them and the Catholic population is narrowing is a blow to unionist claims.

When the Northern state was set up Ulster Unionists had the opportunity to justify the Ulster part of their self-description by pushing for the inclusion of all 9 counties of the province within British jurisdiction.  They did not because they wanted their hold to be secure and it needed a sizeable Protestant majority because the support of the minority was not to be expected.  Now that the religious populations are so near in size it does not make sense to fight to make the state an expression of a sectarian identity if the purpose is to defend the union.  It does however make sense if the purpose is to maintain sectarian power and division.  It then makes perfect sense that even the slightest hint that within the Protestant community this sectarian solidarity is not primary should be squashed – hence the attacks on the Alliance Party.

On the other hand the census does not support a perspective based on a Catholic majority voting a united Ireland, at least not for a long time.  The previous census results appeared amidst widespread speculation of a large increase in the Catholic population, an increase that didn’t materialise.  This latest census has recorded only a small increase, albeit that Catholics are a majority in the youngest age groups.  Even in purely demographic terms this does not mean an inevitable Catholic majority and in political terms the significantly lower proportion defining themselves as Irish hardly gives confidence that even a future Catholic majority will simply demand a united Ireland.  This is especially so given that the Ireland that they might be united with is such an unattractive political entity.

With these alternative programmes and the near equivalence of populations the prognosis can hardly be one of stability.  The need for some alternative is currently championed by the call for mutual respect and reconciliation but this is proving more than a little difficult.  How can two mutually exclusive, even antagonistic, claims show respect to each other never mind be reconciled?  The DUP and Sinn Fein have supposedly been working on an anti-sectarian policy for five years and there is no sign of it while it took the unionist parties five days to propose the union flag fly all-year round at Stormont.

This policy of reconciliation is actually accommodation of sectarianism not its eradication.  Instead of the sectarian politicians being the solution it is unionist politicians who kicked off the recent protests.  Reconciliation means Sinn Fein covering up for the worst of unionist aggression.  So after getting the flag down (some of the time) Sinn Fein then votes along with those who created the violent protest in a hypocritical Assembly motion condemning violence, thus implicitly absolving the DUP and Unionist Party of responsibility.  The flying of the union flag, as we pointed out here before on this question, is a means of intimidation.  The purpose of it flying at City Hall as on every other Government building is to sanction the many, many more union flags that fly all over the North which tell Catholics that this place is not theirs and tells Protestants that their place is anti-Catholic.

The possibility of such a situation being compatible with a shared Northern Ireland national identity, much trumpeted by the media in the wake of the census results, is remote.  The only identity that can be shared by Protestants and Catholics is one that expresses something that they have in common. What is it that they have in common that could possibly form the basis for such unity?

Support the ICTU demonstrations!

frame-1-ictu-protest-march-over-the-governments-four-year-austerity-plan-assembling-at-christchurch-in-dublin-irelandThe Irish Congress of Trade Unions is meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of organising a series of demonstrations across the Irish State in opposition to austerity and debt.  It has issued a press statement outlining its reasons; in particular it is targeting the issue of debt and has indicated that demonstrations might take place in a number of towns and cities including Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Limerick and Waterford.

The possibility of these being organised should be welcomed but more important, if they take place, they should be supported.  It gives working people an opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to austerity, to demonstrate the scale and anger of their opposition and put forward what they think should be the alternative.

It gives the small socialist movement an opportunity to campaign in the working class to make these events as large as possible so that the demonstrations can convince and give confidence to others to also oppose austerity and oppose the crippling debt.  It gives it the opportunity to speak to workers to take action outside as well as inside the trade union movement and in the private sector as well as the public sector.  The purpose would be to begin reuniting workers who have been successfully divided into union and non-union and between public and private sector by the propaganda of the State, employers and media.

A real campaign at union and community group meetings, at workplaces and in the streets including door to door leafleting and canvassing should aim to mobilise as many as possible to turn out, should the demonstrations be called.  Right away attempts should be made to extend the numbers building the demonstrations through meetings organised to discuss the demonstrations and how they could be made as large as possible.

These meetings should not simply be organising meetings but should also discuss why we oppose austerity and the debt, how they are affecting the lives of working people, how we should organise against them and what our alternative should be.  What for example is our position on debt default?  What role does strike action have in a campaign against austerity and default?

There are many issues facing workers and socialists have the opportunity to give them the possibility of coming together beyond the existing union movement to unite and discuss all these issues.

In this blog I have addressed these questions here, here, here and here.

What have been called as one-off demonstrations should be supported in order to make them an on-going campaign both before and after they take place.

All this is primarily the task of the socialist movement but it is not limited to it.  There are many opposed to austerity and many campaigns against its effects that should take the opportunity to better organise and unite with each other to discuss what should be the alternative.

An additional onus is however placed on the socialist movement.  It claims to stand for the interests of the whole working class and has a special duty to take every step to unite it in defence of its own interests.  This has two aspects.  First it must unite itself to carry out the task of uniting workers.  Otherwise it is weaker and opens itself to charges of incompetence, hypocrisy or political sectarianism.  The second is to create a campaign which is open and democratic and which at the very least offers the possibility, if not yet the certainty, of uniting the most militant workers.

The unity of the socialist movement in such a task should in principle be easier since it has theoretically already achieved some level of unity through the United Left Alliance.  The ULA should immediately discuss how such an opportunity can be utilised to build an anti-austerity campaign, on what basis it should be built and what policies it should fight for.  This is, after all, something which the ULA said it was going to do when it got elected and it would not do to renege on promises, just like the Labour Party and all the other right wing parties, once elected to the Dail.

Complete agreement should be no barrier to taking this action.  A democratic campaign would in any case allow everyone to argue its particular view on the way forward and the alternative.  In a democratic campaign of action there would be no role for vetoes.

The objective on the day would be a united left contingent, united around an agreed programme and demands, offering an on-going campaign to everyone at the demonstration who didn’t just want to go home afterwards to watch themselves on the RTE news.  The size and resonance of such a contingent would testify to the potential to build real and lasting opposition to austerity.

There is of course a flip side.

To borrow from management-speak: for every opportunity there is a threat and for every potential strength a potential weakness.  To fail to take opportunities threatens the effectiveness of resistance to austerity and to fail to strengthen the resistance will result in weakening it.  The ULA through its minor electoral success has given itself some responsibilities which it should relish as opportunities to help workers build a movement against austerity.

Support, build and go way beyond the ICTU demonstrations!

Budget 2013 and the alternative

6122011-budget-2012-second-day-14-630x491The 2013 budget is going to introduce tax increases and spending cuts of €3.5 billion.  Michael Noonan smiled when holding up the budget document to the cameras while Brendan Howlin looked serious.  Nevertheless RTE reported that Labour TDs were pleased claiming that their fingerprints were all over it.  And so they are.  Their footprints, where they walked all over many vulnerable sectors of society, are also all over the budget.

There has essentially been only one defence of these austerity budgets and that is that the Government has had no choice.  No choice because there is no economic alternative and no choice because the State has lost its economic sovereignty and is basically doing what it is told to by the Troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In this budget they have felt compelled to come up with a new defence – it is nearly over. This was trumpeted by Michael Noonan and also claimed by the Labour leader that “It is the budget that is going to get us to 85% of the adjustment that has to be made, and will therefore put the end in sight for these types of measures and these types of budgets”.

This hardly looks credible, which is not good news, because what it essentially means is that the austerity measures implemented have both been insufficient and haven’t worked.  The economy has contracted and stagnated even as the austerity measures have been insufficient to bridge the deficit.

For 2012, the deficit has turned out to be around €500 million larger than planned but because of upward revisions to data from earlier years, the deficit target, set as a percentage of GDP, will still be hit. This assistance in meeting the ‘target’ will not be available in 2013.

At the end of 2013 the deficit will be 7.5% of GDP.  In 2008 (excluding that related to the banking bail out) it was 7.3% rising to 11.5% in 2009. All the austerity budgets have achieved so far is a reduction of 4% – less than half way to eradicating the budget deficit never mind 85% of the way.  Even by 2017 the IMF forecasts the deficit will be 1.8% so the debt will still be getting bigger.

As with all these budgets there have been cuts to capital expenditure with another €500 million reduction targeted for 2013. In 2008, capital expenditure was close to €10 billion. In 2013, it will be under €3.5 billion. Public capital expenditure has been slashed by 66% which wipes out, and more, the so-called stimulus measures announced earlier in the government’s PR/con exercise that claimed to be promoting jobs.  This means the infrastructure of the state, economy and society will disintegrate more or less quickly.

The sheer madness of the austerity agenda is demonstrated by the fact that the €3.5 billion in cuts and tax increases will be wiped out before they are even implemented by the €3 billion payment of the promissory notes for the Anglo-Irish bank, which no longer exists, and repayments of €2.45 billion of bonds for Irish Life & Permanent. On top of this there is the rising interest cost of the debt, which will increase from €5.7bn in 2012 to €8.1 billion in 2012-13.

With the debt increasing, even at a reduced rate of increase, the burden of interest payments on it can only worsen.  This makes the debt unsustainable.  A rising interest burden will be a permanent anchor on growth.  This is a problem because the Government is relying on renewed economic growth to get out of the stagnation now in place.  The weakness of Irish capitalism means that it must rely on outside forces for this growth.  Either that or there is some debt relief to lower the amount of debt and the burden of interest payments.

In the meantime particular groups of the working class will suffer real hardship, living standards will decline or at best stagnate and unemployment will be limited only by continuing emigration.  The stresses imposed on society will be expressed in mounting social problems that will often be presented as a simple increase in personal misfortune while increased inequality will coarsen social relations and further weaken social solidarity.  The absence of any radical perspective will see reactionary prejudice become common currency.

Once again the United Left Alliance has put forward what it states is a socialist alternative.  In substance it is the same argument as that put forward last year but with more detail and some development here and there.  There is no need to repeat the analysis presented earlier in this blog including here, here and here.

The ULA is in no position to implement any of its proposals.  The purpose of the document must therefore be an educational one.  What it teaches is therefore the only useful criterion by which to judge it.

It starts out by claiming to be a socialist alternative and its headline is repudiation of the debt, an end to austerity and the need to invest in jobs and services.  All these are undoubtedly the immediate needs of the working class.  The problems start when we look to see how it is proposed these ends might be achieved.

The ULA “proposes to take the burden of the crisis off working people, improve their lives and revive the Irish economy.”  On the other hand it admits that “the budgetary proposals put forward by the ULA can in no way offer a comprehensive solution to the crisis we face.”  How the first claim is reconciled to the second is not explained.

While the debt crisis “resulted entirely from the actions of developers, bankers and the politicians who facilitated them” it is not explained how this can be reconciled to it being “a manifestation of a deep structural crisis of global capitalism.”  It is nowhere explained what this latter statement means, how it explains what has happened or how it explains what solutions are possible.  The Marxism to which the core elements of the ULA claim commitment is founded on claims to present just such answers but they are not here.

It might, with some justification, be claimed that the precise cause of the crisis is also a cause of some debate within Marxism.  Unfortunately any suggestion that a key task of the ULA might be to debate this out so as to inform the politics it espouses would be held up many as a fetish of sectarian or dogmatic individuals who aren’t interested in practically ‘building the movement’, or some other such boorish remark.  Instead while (dumbed down) Marxism is relegated to recruitment meetings for novices the vacuum that is the politics presented to workers is filled with Keynesian, that is capitalist, ideas that are the currency of liberals and the leaders of the trade unions.

Let us see some ways in which this is expressed in the ULA economic alternative.

First the ULA proposes to improve the lives of working people and revive the Irish economy but there are no socialist measures proposed that would achieve this.  Were the proposals to therefore fail (if by some miracle they were tried) it would discredit what passes itself as socialism while if they were to succeed they would go some way to making socialism irrelevant.

The ULA claims that “the alternative we propose will not be implemented by the current parties in the Dail or by the Irish state.”  Yet it proposes that the Irish State increases income tax on the rich, reduces taxation on workers, introduces a wealth tax, introduces a financial transactions tax, increases corporation tax, takes “full control of the banks”, supports small business, invests to create jobs, embarks on a programme of council house construction, creates a new construction company, renationalises all privatised strategic enterprises and establishes a state owned gas and oil company. It declares that “the ULA believes public enterprise and public works must play the central role to redevelop the economy on a sustainable basis.”

The ULA claims that “radical measures that break with the logic of ‘markets’ are required” but the demands on the state above do not do this while it is claimed these measures will “revive” and redevelop the economy on a sustainable basis.”

“There is a need for active struggles to demand policies that prioritise the need for jobs, public services and growth, using public investment and democratic socialist planning to chart a way out of the current crisis.”  What sort of struggles? For what policies? And who will we demand this of?  How would they deliver on it?  What, who and how?  Where and when don’t even arise given the vacuousness of this string of words.

In other words – as a vehicle for education – the alternative budget, when it is not mistaken, as we have explained in earlier posts, is simply incoherent.

What is clear is that the ULA has no strategic perspective.  It calls for socialist planning, but socialist planning is just another term for working class rule, for the working class controlling society.  Yet it proposes the state, the capitalist state, take action in the here and now to solve the crisis and develop the economy on a “sustainable basis”.

This lack of coherence reveals itself in timidity, contradiction and calls for solutions that have already been the means to subordinate and exploit the working class; as when the ULA calls for “full nationalisation with direct public control of the banks” when it is nationalisation and state control of the banks that has been the mechanism to burden workers with the debts of the speculators.

Even when it calls for “direct public control of the banks” this can as easily be defined as the current arrangements as it might by workers control.  So how does such a demand clarify anything?  How does it educate anyone on what they should fight for?

The ULA is currently undergoing an organisational crisis but its real problems are political.  It argues an alternative that is simply not based on the actions of the working class. It is imperfectly aware of this so it substitutes vague calls for action and acknowledgements that what they are proposing is only temporary amelioration.

There is a possible solution to this problem and it involves debating openly and democratically what a socialist strategy should be.  As I have said such calls are resisted.  It therefore falls to those prepared to do so to engage in such a debate so that we don’t just point out what’s wrong but also say what’s right.

Fighting over flags in Belfast

6The decision last night of Belfast City Council to stop flying the union flag 365 days a year, and not at all over other council buildings, resulted in a protest by around 1,000 loyalists outside the City Hall and ultimately a small disturbance. There was also trouble in East Belfast when the result was announced including an attack on a Catholic Church.

In preparation for the vote the Democratic Unionist Party had distributed tens of thousands of leaflets attacking the Alliance Party which had indicated it would not support unionist demands that it continue to fly all-year round but would propose that it fly only on designated days.  This is around 15 days a year on occasions like the Queen’s birthday and is the policy at Stormont where the devolved Assembly sits.  Nationalists had stated their intention to call for a vote which would have led to the flag not being flown at all and the Alliance proposal was seen as a compromise.  Holding the balance of power in the council it was widely expected the Alliance proposal would succeed, as it did.

In the build up to the council meeting the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which is the political front of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) stated that while its previous position was that it accepted the flag should only fly on designated days, now that it was being demanded by nationalists it would oppose it.  Sinn Fein has claimed that the UVF was prominent in the protest which led to the minor violence.  There is no doubt that loyalist paramilitaries were behind the violence in East Belfast.

At the demonstration the usual sectarian songs and slogans were recited and an Irish tricolour was burnt.  The BBC interviewed some participants in the protest.  One protested about the need to defend the flag that had been flown in Afghanistan while inside a DUP councillor protested that nationalists were attacking the union flag and other parts of Protestant identity.  The case against flying the flag could hardly have been better made by those opposed to it.

Loyalists defend the flag because it is a symbol of imperialist might and of sectarian identity while liberals complain that it is the flag of the country and should not be confused with sectarianism.

Of course flags are symbols of states.  They fly to denote the claims of that state over territory or over institutions.  They cannot be divorced from the history and policies of that state or institutions and they cannot be divorced from the actions of those who fly it.  For all these reasons the union flag is a symbol around the world of empire, military adventure and occupation and in Ireland it has a history of being identified with a sectarian state and sectarian practices.  The protestors were defending it because they support all of this, they support imperialism and sectarianism.

The approach of the PUP is instructive in this regard.  To Catholics their policy is – yes you can have rights, but only those we will let you have.  So you would not have to put up with the union flag flying every day if you had kept your mouth shut and not tried to change it but now that you have you must be prepared to suffer protest and intimidation.

This is the point that all those complaining about pointless arguments over flags refuse to take on board.  If the continued flying of that flag results from the exercise of intimidation then that is what the continued flying of that flag represents and that is what it symbolises.  It would do so, and has done so up to now, because that is what has allowed the flag to fly.  As a symbol it represents sectarian intimidation and the union flag symbolises the power of a state established by force and sectarian intimidation.  That it is now defended in such a way simply confirms this.

Some further observations can be made.

The rabidly sectarian character of the protest and opposition inside the council chamber blows yet another hole in the ‘campaign’, if that’s not too strong a word, by Peter Robinson and his claim that Catholics are happy with the union, partition and can be won to support the DUP.  If the flag of that union is claimed by its defenders as a part of a sectarian identity just what part of the state are Catholics supposed to identify with and support?

Garnering non-sectarian support for British rule is the role of the Alliance Party and it is no coincidence that the main target of the unionist campaign was this party.  The intention of the DUP is to win the East Belfast Westminster seat back from that party and sectarian flag waving is the way to do it.  That in doing so the claims of Robinson are exposed is not accidentally ironic.

The protest was relatively small despite the effort put into it but the reaction from the state was instructive.  The police had their usual low profile which was criticised by Sinn Fein and compared to what their activity would have been had 1,000 republicans turned up.  The presence of  figures reminds everyone, or rather it should, of the Chief Constable’s attendance at the PUP party conference earlier in the year.  This is now neatly sandwiched between UVF rioting in the lower Shankill and similar activity in the city centre and East Belfast.  This attendance signalled acceptance of such activity as part of the normal rules of the game but rules which should not be overstepped.

BBC interviewers refused to entertain criticism that loyalist figures were in attendance and might have something to do with the violence.  Fortunately one no longer has to worry whether the BBC will similarly refuse criticism of Osama Bin Laden on the grounds he is not in the studio to defend himself.

Concentration on the small size of the protest is therefore misplaced.  Unionism has increasingly taken to the streets, reflected in sectarian exhibitions in Donegall Street outside a Catholic Church and in the very large Ulster Covenant demonstration. The City Hall protest was sponsored by the main unionist parties who are both in government and they have signalled the issue is not over by promising to demand that the union flag is flown permanently at the cenotaph in the grounds of council buildings.

Even as low level controversy sectarianism is necessary for political rivalry and feeds continued division.  It sets wider political expectations and exposes the limited role of the state in combating expressions of sectarianism.  The liberal pretentions of the British state are allowed to continue to be presented as the only choice and the effect is to enforce an unacknowledged intimidation of alternatives.

In the larger scheme of things this particular issue does not threaten wider instability but it is one of a number of sectarian outbursts that remind everyone who cares to pay attention that the sectarian dynamics of Northern politics and society remain intact.  It is very unlikely that the continued brewing of this sectarian kettle will forever remain off boiling point.