Should socialists support a border poll? 3 What sort of Protestant opposition?

I have stated that the purpose of a united Ireland for socialists is not to unite the nation or the territory but to unite the working class.  The Socialist Party opposes a border poll, which might be one way to move in this direction, because it says that the Protestant working class in the North will oppose it and may do so violently.  It has pointed to Protestant opposition expressed in the flags dispute beginning in 2012 as an example of such opposition, opposition which socialists should concede makes the initiative one that will increase sectarian division.

In this post I will look at this opposition and argue that it is not an example of an initiative that socialists should accede to, and certainly should not be presented as an example of the sort of response that should determine socialist views on the way forward, even if by necessity such actions must of course be taken into account.

In effect, what I am saying is that such opposition has no progressive content, should not be conceded to as legitimate barriers to fighting for progressive, democratic and socialist change, and are in fact wholly reactionary.  Rather than bow to them, it is the task of socialists to oppose such mobilisations – these do not constitute resistance reflecting legitimate interests of the working class but are defences of the most virulent division. Rather than being a reason to retreat or stand still, the forces behind the flag dispute are the most diehard defenders of sectarian division, which if it is to be defeated, will mean the defeat of the forces that defend it.  To do otherwise is to capitulate to sectarianism.

The flag dispute began at the beginning of December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag outside the City Hall to 18 designated days, instead of the existing arrangements of flying it every day of the year.  It led to a riot outside the building on the night of the vote by a loyalist crowd, which had been roused to anger by the distribution of 40,000 leaflets by the two main Unionist parties, who claimed that the unionist (with a small u) but self-identified non-sectarian Alliance Party was threatening unionist identity.

This led to a series of protests that involved almost 3,000 ‘occurrences’ according to police, which included demonstrations, riots and assaults on people and property, although no one was actually killed.  At its height it mobilised about 10,000 people at any one time, and in one night involved 84 different sites across the North.  It was therefore pretty widespread if not massively deep.

The mobilisations declined rather quickly, although continued into 2013, the following year, and a ritual demo takes place outside the City Hall every Saturday to this day.  In terms of previous decades of ‘the troubles’ it was small beer, except it was supposed to be after the success of the ‘peace process’ when we were all apparently to be living in a ‘post-conflict’ society.

However, in other respects it was typical of Northern Ireland politics, and therefore a reasonable controversy on which to hang the argument.  It suits the purpose of the Socialist Party position not only because it is relatively recent, no one was killed, and it obviously involved the question of Protestants’ identity as ‘British’, but also because, unlike other expressions of unionist politics in what they see as defence of their rights, which they could have used, such as the protests around the Drumcree Orange parade in the second half of the 1990s or Holy Cross Primary School in 2001, these would have too obviously demonstrated the naked bigotry of what often passes for Protestant defence of their rights.  No one outside the ranks of the bigots could ever be impressed by an assertion of Protestant rights that involves attacking primary school children and their parents going to school.

We don’t however need the worst examples in order to criticise Loyalist politics, and the example of the flag protest is neither ‘the best’ nor the worst.  It is the one that the Socialist Party writer decided to reference and the essential politics involved has wider application than the contingent factors involved in this particular episode.

The policy of flying the flag on designated days was a compromise from an original Sinn Fein proposal not to fly it at all, although Sinn Fein’s later support for the designated days policy could be guaranteed to anger loyalists, even though three councils with unionist majorities were already adhering to designated days before the Belfast council decision.

Policies on flying the flag had already been agreed for Government buildings and in workplaces (were they are prohibited) but not in local government, and the council already had legal advice pointing out the legal risk on grounds of equality legislation in the existing policy of flying the union flag every day.

The Unionist Parties were now in a minority on the council and the balance of power lay with the Alliance Party, which proposed the new designated days motion, and Catholics now constituted a majority in the city – 136,000 against 119,00 Protestants.  The equality and community relations industry was generally sympathetic to this sort of approach and two public meetings, entailed by official consultation on equality impact grounds, was attended at the first by two members of the public and by one at the second.  A petition of almost 15,000 supported existing policy but this was a result of many of the signatures being acquired at a loyalist celebration.

The Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, actually supported the designated days policy in its submission to the consultation, although quickly changed its mind. For some loyalists it is fine if they can determine what does and does not happen, but what does and does not happen cannot be because Catholics have either asked for it or demanded it.  In other words, they have the rights that are allowed to them, which is to say, more strictly and accurately, no rights at all.

In a poll almost three quarters of Catholic Council employees stated that they would be pleased or very pleased if the union flag didn’t fly, while 88 per cent of Protestant staff said they would be displeased or offended.

The successful motion in the council to fly it on only designated days, including on birthdays of members of the royal family, stated that “this reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories . . . it also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.”

When the result of the vote was made known outside the meeting loyalists at the back of the City Hall rioted and attempted to enter the building.  Later, on their way home to East Belfast, they attacked houses in the small Catholic area of Short Strand, which was to become a regular occurrence.

Protests at the City Hall also became a regular occurrence each Saturday, with the first appearing chaotic and without clear leadership, although a number of individual loyalists became recognised spokesmen for the protests if not the actual leaders.  One was Jim Dowson, formerly a member of the British National Party.  At the march round the City Hall protestors sang sectarian songs such as The Sash, the Famine Song and the Glasgow Rangers football ‘Bouncy’ song (if you could call it a song).

Police appeared to facilitate rather than stop protestors in what were illegal protests.  This was later challenged by a resident of the Short Strand, which was initially successful but then lost on appeal, with the judiciary declaring that not preventing illegal parades was within the discretion of the police.  Catholics had earlier argued that the police had used their discretion to arrest Republican protestors in Ardoyne while taking a different approach to loyalists.

The other significant target for the protestors was the property and personnel of the Alliance Party which were attacked and which had been the original target of unionist politicians’ leaflet campaign.  Most of these politicians kept quiet during the period of violent loyalist protest, with a few issuing ritualistic and general condemnations of violence while a few others were openly standing with the protestors.  However, the leadership of unionism was sufficiently rattled by the out-of-control protests for them to call for unity around a Unionist Forum, which included themselves and paramilitary figures, although this outward show of unity did little to dispel the obvious disunity among them.

The protests petered out although continue in a ritualistic form today.  On the first anniversary of the protest 1,500 took part when 5,000 or 10,000 had been predicted, while a year later only 200 showed up.  By this stage loyalists had found a new assault on their identity with the rerouting of a return parade past the shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area.

This did not mean that the cause the loyalists were protesting was not popular among unionists, or even that the protests themselves were unpopular.  An opinion poll shortly after the protests started found that, while among all respondents 44 per cent thought designated days was the correct policy and 35 per cent supported flying the flag all the time, 73 per cent of unionists wanted it up 365 days a year and 64 per cent of nationalists 18 days. While there was majority support (51 per cent) for the right to protest, after nearly two months 76 per cent wanted them to stop, although 45 per cent of unionists wanted them to continue.

A separate poll, as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, found that the designated days policy received the support of 53 per cent of all respondents while 24 per cent supported flying the union flag all the time.  In this poll 48 per cent of Protestants supported the designated days option while 44 per cent supported the 365 days option, although this may reflect the fact that most of this survey was carried out before the decision and protests had started.

A poll taken in August and September 2013, 9 to 10 months after the protests started and then died down – and been replaced to a great extent by those around Orange parades – found that 31 per cent of Protestants supported the all-year policy while only 8 per cent of Catholics did, while 19 per cent of ‘Other’ did, i.e. those who did not identify themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

It is clear that attitudes changed and the strength of Protestant opposition to the erosion of their British identity, as it has been put, was stronger during the height of the protests than after, and involved a more extensive identification of just what this meant during the protests than before.

It is clear that some of the most extreme elements of Protestant politics were involved in the flag protest.  The often primitive and disordered protests were satirised on line, most prominently in the LAD Site (Loyalists Against Democracy).  The originator of the site described how it began:

“I sat down at the computer one night and created a page and gave it this title, Loyalists Against Democracy – I’m trying to be humorous – and I went to bed and when I got up in the morning 50 people had ‘liked’ the page. I mean, I was trying to be as ridiculous as I could be. I posted one page in particular – it wasn’t very funny – complaining about Aer Lingus flying over east Belfast and next morning there were hundreds of comments agreeing with this, each one more vile than the last.”

While this says something of the political character of the flag protest it also throws into relief the approach of the Socialist Party, which wishes to employ this episode as justification for emasculating a socialist approach and acceptance of limits imposed by the most primitive unionism. Essentially the Party argues that those most wedded to reactionary sectarian politics must be conciliated in pursuit of defeating this politics.

In the next post in this series I will look at some of the implications of this.

Back to Part 2

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