Nationalism, Sectarianism and Democracy in the North of Ireland

castledergMarxists have regarded the struggle against British rule in the North of Ireland as a legitimate one in the sense that it is a fight against an imperialist state and its political rule in a country in which it has no democratic right to exercise its powers.  This is reflected in the undemocratic partition of the country and its reliance on a colonial movement which has proven incapable of providing or allowing basic democratic rights to its neighbours of a different religion. The legitimate democratic rights of this population have never been advanced but have always been subsumed under a bigoted and triumphalist programme of support for sectarian privilege and for the most reactionary characteristics of the British State.

Imperialist rule has thus always involved promotion and pandering to the worst aspects of sectarianism.  During ‘the troubles’ this involved repeated attempts to give coherence and effectiveness to loyalist gangs who were often more interested in pure criminality than their reactionary political programme.  This included planting security services agents into the loyalist paramilitaries, arming these gangs, providing them with intelligence on targeting, facilitating their actions and preventing other arms of the police from apprehending their killers.

What has often struck commentators on loyalist violence has been its sheer frenzied brutality and savagery, a feature of extreme reactionary violence everywhere.

This year the British State has once again indulged loyalist violence – during the flags protests – and the more honest local journalists have reported the patronage by the state and politicians of the loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, especially in East Belfast.

This organisation has gained confidence and power in Protestant working class areas through State acceptance of its nefarious activities.  Rather than attempt to completely destroy the most vicious supporters of British rule the British State has attempted to tame it and make it amenable to its own more measured policies.  The riot in July in the Woodvale area after a local Orange parade was prevented going past a Catholic area, and the riot in Belfast City Centre to prevent a Republican demonstration, show how limited the success of such a policy has been.

The claims of loyalism that it is simply defending its culture and traditions are without any merit.  Its culture is one of sectarian practices, made-up of borrowings from others and simple invention.

Attending a loyalist parade made up of bowler hated men declaring temperance and loyalty to the British monarchy, as long as it remains Protestant, led by aggressive flute bands sometimes named after sectarian killers and followed by drunken and hate filled followers will tell you most of what you need to know about the nature of Ulster unionism.

The Marxist opposition to British rule and loyalism and attendant defence of Irish nationalist claims is therefore mainly a negative one.  It is a positive one to the extent that this Irish nationalism puts forward and advances real democratic demands.

It is therefore possible to imagine (but only imagine!) a situation in which Protestant workers opposed a united Ireland because Irish nationalism wished to foist a catholic clerical regime on a genuine outpost of the British State, which was integrated into that State, was part of its on-going political development and in which this outpost of Irish workers were fully integrated into the British class struggle.  In such a situation it might be the case that the demand s of Irish nationalism would be reactionary – a call to disrupt a united working class which had overcome sectarian division and which was moving instead to a programme of independent working class politics.

To present such a scenario is to demonstrate how far reality is from the real situation and why Marxists adopt the programme for Ireland that they do. The scenario above is put forward purely to illustrate the approach which Marxist take and to distinguish it from all varieties of Irish nationalism.  Marxists are primarily concerned with the unity and independent struggle of the working class irrespective of nationality.  The programme of the socialist movement can only be successful if the disunity caused by nationalist division is overcome.

This means that there is no automatic support for the activities of Irish nationalists and republicans.  Marxists defend the democratic content of the struggle of those oppressed but this does not mean support for its expression in nationalist politics.  Marxists do indeed distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor but that does not mean they support the former.

In the recent dispute over parading Sinn Fein has more and more shifted its political position to one of recognising that the Protestant population of the North of Ireland is British and can therefore claim rights that are equivalent, but not greater, than those of the Catholic Irish.  Marxists accept neither of these arguments – that the Protestant population is British or that even if it was its political claims therefore have to be supported.  For the loyalists their demands continue to mean the assertion of sectarian privilege.

The acceptance of the political legitimacy of unionism, defined by itself in sectarian terms, means that Sinn Fein’s own claims become judged by the same measure.  This is indeed why Sinn Fein has moved to this position.  It is the logic of the peace process, its ‘parity of esteem’, ‘reconciliation between the two traditions’, mutual understanding, respect and equality of rights and all the other honeyed phrases behind which lie behind poisonous sectarianism.

The logic of the political settlement in the North is sectarian competition where once it was purely sectarian domination and Sinn Fein has bought into this.  Thus it declares its interests in the concepts appropriate to this sectarian competition.

The statement by it on the recent IRA commemoration in Castlederg shows all this. The local Sinn Fein councillor said

‘This parade is organised to show respect for those who gave their lives for this community. It should never have been an issue of controversy- it has been ‘made’ controversial by unionist politicians. We have proposed this initiative to take the controversy out of it while reducing tension.

“Our initiative will consist of choosing to go along John Street which avoids passing the cenotaph and the Methodist church.

“On the back of this initiative, we wish to engage with all key stakeholders in relation to the issue of the town center being designated as a shared space for all traditions, in this mainly nationalist town.

“There has been around 20 unionist parades through the town centre in 2013 so far without objection, we understand and accept peoples Britishness- others need to understand and accept our Irishness.”

So the IRA fought for Catholic freedom not Irish freedom unless Sinn Fein now equates the latter with the former, which appears to be the case.  At the same time it now recognises the legitimacy of the claims of Irish Protestants to be British so there appears no reason why one sectarian groups’ claims should have priority over the other.

What we have is endless competition with no reason to judge any particular outcome fair or appropriate, except that it exists and it exist only as a result of struggle between the groups, presided over by the British State.

What this means is that where the civil rights struggle once demanded an end to sectarian domination, essentially discrimination against Catholics by unionism, now the necessary democratic struggle would appear to be against sectarian competition, essentially discrimination by unionists against Catholics and nationalists against Protestants.

Sectarian competition is however unstable.  Unionism wants sectarian privilege while Sinn Fein claims it wants equality but it has demonstrated that it seeks equality not through unity, which is the only way it could exist or be brought about, but through sectarian claims on behalf of Catholics, because they are Catholics and because they are claiming Catholic rights.

It is now lost on a whole generation that the demands for civil rights and equality were demands for democratic rights irrespective of religious beliefs not because of them.  It is lost on this generation that claiming Catholic rights is not the same as claiming civil rights.

The civil rights’ demand for equality required unity because civil rights were disconnected from religious belief.   Now rights are claimed by virtue of religion.  Equality now means the equality of resources to sectarian groups, which can only be achieved by ensuring the continued existence and political priority of these groups.  Demands are made that those not designating themselves in sectarian terms must do so or someone must label them on their behalf.  In other words equality now requires sectarianism.

If sectarian domination was unstable this sectarian competition is even more so.  The current political situation is unstable because not only is it impossible to have stable agreement on the equitable sharing of sectarian rights but such equality does not yet exist.

Despite decades of Sinn Fein ‘leadership’ in West Belfast the social and economic problems of the constituency are among the worst.  Unemployment among Catholics is still worse than among Protestants.  Thousands of Orange parades still proclaim their sectarian superiority except everyone is now called upon to be tolerant, seek reconciliation with the participants and show non-sectarianism by accepting the displays of bigotry.

In such an Orwellian world sectarianism is to be eradicated by support for sectarianism.  And then we are to be amazed how on earth the problem hasn’t disappeared and often appears to be getting worse.

To be continued.

One thought on “Nationalism, Sectarianism and Democracy in the North of Ireland

  1. What ought to be considered is the one big idea first associated with the leadership of the civil rights campaign and then attached to the Workers Party. The gist of the idea is that a Devolved Government in the of north Ireland is not in principle incompatible with equality of rights if in History ie from 1920-1970 it was incompatible.

    This strand of political thinking has never actually been superseded within northern nationalism or even within socialism. It is very prevalent today with those who continue to see the Executive as the way forward despite the difficulties. The idea is that the Unionist supporting population can be persuaded and sometimes jolted into coming to terms with the reality of equality of rights. It is assumed that a bill of rights is essential to the success of the process.

    It is assumed that sectarian based Unionism has a very weak and even an untenable base of support. The economy is very dependent on British tax transfers making it susceptible to political pressure from liberal minded Britain. It is argued that Orange Unionism is now an anachronism and even an embarrassment to a multicultural Britain. There is therefore a basis for thinking that Orange Unionism has to begin to transform itself into something more in tune with the British norm. If the British elite are slow to the task it does not mean that they are in principle opposed to applying the required pressure. And when the British are too slow there are the more determined Americans to speed things along, and even the European Union can lend a hand.

    This kind of genteel politics has taken a firm hold and is kind of expressed in the message coming from the celebration of the life and opinions of the poet Seamus Heaney. His funeral was like a meeting of establishment Ireland with the added extra of Adams and McGuinness cupping their hands as they took the communion of the church. Heaney was never a reactionary, for a while he was even associated with the Field Day, but he was a critic of the revolutionary tendency in Irish political culture, somehow it always ended up in a state of squalid violence and stalemate. Better to travel to your political destination by horse and carriage than take the fast train.

    This is the political wisdom that is celebrated today. It is assumed that Unionism will have to change to fit with a human rights based present tense. I think that the central plank of this genteel nationalism that the British elite are liberal and progressive is mistaken, this is judging on the basis of ignorance of political arrangements. If people were to judge Britain by its Constitution or its foreign policy it would look very different.

    The British Constitution is reactionary and sectarian and its foreign policy is too. The Unionists are not loyal to the British government, they are loyal to its Constitution which is sectarian and Monarchical so the Ulster Unionists are perfectly in tune with establishment British political culture. The Unionists are also the most consistent supporters of the country’s foreign policy too. The Unionists can hold out much longer than even some of their more extreme followers currently believe.

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