From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 14 – the aftermath of August 1969

shankill road

Two days after the attempted loyalist pogrom the Stormont Government gave a press conference before bewildered journalists, who became increasingly angry as the previous days’ events were described as an IRA plot in which Catholic residents had burned their own homes.  A claim repeated by others, including Ian Paisley.

There was no criticism of loyalists or the Shankill Defence Association, and the B-Specials were defended.  One journalist pointed out that not one loyalist had been arrested, and when it was asked who information for a potential inquiry should be given to, ‘almost the entire hall burst into laughter’ when the Minister of Home Affairs suggested the police.

Academics from Queens’ University in Belfast later estimated that 1,505 (82.7%) of the households that had been displaced were Catholic while the number of Protestant households was 315 (17.3%) .  This was an under-estimate and did not include the intimidation by the SDA between April and July.  A separate  academic study estimated that during August and September 1969 3,500 families had been forced to leave their homes with 85% of them Catholic.  In a later three-week period in August 1971 a further 2,069 left.  Yet another study claimed that between 8,000 and 15,000 families in the Greater Belfast area were forced to flee their homes.

But this is not all there was to Belfast in these few days in mid-August 1969 and it has been argued that to believe so is to see only a partial and therefore distorted picture.  One author has noted* that at this time Belfast was divided into six police districts within which the majority of violence flared in only two, with it further concentrated in only three areas within these two.

District A, which included the centre of the City contained two potential flashpoints – Protestant Sandy Row and Catholic Markets – which remained quiet, with two local peace committees working together to maintain it.  District D covered North Belfast, including the Antrim Road which had a number of potential areas of conflict, but saw no sign of serious disturbances, and again some co-operation helped prevent them.  ‘E’ district covered East Belfast which included the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand and the RUC prevented two incursions by Protestant mobs; residents did put up barricades but did not seek to expel the RUC from the area.  The Catholic Committee worked with the mainly Protestant ‘East Belfast Peace Committee’ and with RUC so that the police presence was ‘at the barest minimum.’  ‘F’ district was the site of a number of attacks on Catholic property but barricades on the Donegall Road ‘were manned by Catholics and Protestants working in harmony’ and peace was secured during this period.

The importance of this is that despite it being widely considered as the start of ‘the Troubles’, the attempted pogrom of 14/15 August 1969 did not make ‘the Troubles’ inevitable and certainly not in the form that it was later to take.  This required the introduction of two further developments.  It is also important because it explodes a popular and lazy view that ‘the Troubles’ were an inevitable product of immutable religious/ethnic differences that equally inevitably would lead to violence.  However with this wider lens we can see that many people went to great lengths to avoid or prevent it, and even where it occurred many Protestants were shocked and opposed to the intimidation and expulsion of their Catholic neighbours.

Even in the Harland and Wolff shipyard the shop stewards were able to take an initiative to ensure sectarian violence, which would have led to a repeat of previous expulsions of Catholic workers, did not occur by calling a mass meeting of the workers to prevent it.  The political limitations of this were obvious however as Unionist politicians were invited to address the shipyard meeting and the resolution presented to the workers called upon the Government to enforce ‘law and order’.  The problem being, of course, that the forces of law and order had often led the attacks taking place, including the use of armoured cars and indiscriminate firing of heavy machine guns.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party members most prominent in East Belfast were also on the right wing of the party and led its later further degeneration as ‘the Troubles’ developed.  With this level of political consciousness, the spontaneous effort to limit the spread of violence could go no further, and certainly could not make itself an obstacle to the political developments that fueled the growth of violence over the next period.  These efforts were unable to develop an alternative organisation never mind any sort of force representing a political alternative.

Yet the view that what happened was a result of historic divisions that survived years of peaceful coexistence to suddenly erupt in communal violence is precisely the view that is proposed by the author who brings the wider and more mixed picture to the fore. Sectarian violence had been occasioned during the creation of the state and had also erupted in the 1930’s but these were clearly instrumental. Firstly in creation of the Northern state, by suppressing the Catholic population opposed to its creation, and then in the 1930’s to reimpose the sectarian division that had briefly broken down.  There was otherwise no widespread violence or even latent warfare despite the permanence of the state’s special powers of repression.

The main districts of violence were districts B and C, which included the Falls/Shankill interface and the Crumlin Road with Ardoyne on one side and the Eastern side of the Shankill and Woodvale on the other.  The writer puts the occurrence of violence here “to be explicable in terms of the role played by local collective histories of violence.”  He does mention the role of the police but employs the affected areas “folk memory” of previous sectarian violence to explain where it occurred in August 1969.

This does not explain why sectarian attacks took place later in areas that apparently were without this ‘folk memory’; does not explain how these other areas had ‘forgotten’ about previous sectarian clashes, and why the people of the areas that did suffer in August 1969 seemed to get on for years before 1969.   In doesn’t attempt to explain why folk memories should lead to sectarian attacks and how these memories led loyalists to attack Catholics and Catholics to seek to defend themselves, while the majority of Protestants did not to take part in any of the attacks.

It does not explain how these folk memories, were they so strong, and so recently validated, could be reflected in the particular response to the sectarian attacks by Catholic defence committees.  These were dominated by figures in the republican movement, local clergy and a few Catholic businessmen; but whatever their shortcomings, they did not support the sectarian intimidation that exploded in mid-August 1969.

The newsletter issued by the defence committees on 21 August said this – “For members of the Catholic community to attack Protestants is to sink to the same level as the B Specials and the Unionist extremists . . . The defence committees in the Catholic areas must offer the fullest protection to the Protestant families and Catholic sectarians caught interfering with these families should be severely dealt with.’  What ‘folk memories’ did such sentiments as these spring from?

In other words, this is an explanation in itself requiring an explanation, which is sufficient in itself to expel any speculative ideas about ‘folk memories’ causing the pogrom in 1969.

Such an explanation is a tendentious attempt to explain the violence that erupted in a couple of areas but not in others but fails to realise that it was not two areas but one from which the violence sprung, and this was the Shankill, from which loyalist mobs attacked the Falls to its west and Ardoyne to its east.  The single area can be identified because what happened was not ‘sectarian violence’ in some sort of general sense but an attempted pogrom by directly identifiable actors – the Shankill Defence Association, which had been engaged in such violent intimidation and attacks for the five previous months.

The SDA had succeeded in driving out the RUC, because it wasn’t violently sectarian enough, and had evolved as a particularly virulent strain of sectarianism from the movement around Ian Paisley.  We have seen its close relations with the highest levels of the Unionist regime and its even closer relations with the armed forces of the regime, especially the B-Specials.  This impunity, that continued throughout its attempted pogrom, gave it the wherewithal and confidence to take the initiative in open acts of terror without fear of actions by the state to stop it.  In fact, the state facilitated the attacks in the most direct way by often leading them.

So, what stood condemned by the August attacks was not so much loyalist sectarianism but the Unionist regime and state. The mobilisation of sections of the Catholic population to support the defenders of the Bogside did indeed inflame Protestant anger and fears but to blame this mobilisation is to ignore the political motivation behind such fears that had found expression in opposition to civil rights and the lower level sectarian intimidation of previous months.

Loyalist anger was recharged again when the British Government (Cameron) inquiry, commissioned to look into the events around the early civil rights marches, reported.  The findings of the Commission, which did not simply blame the civil rights movement, prompted yet more attacks on Catholic property.  Once again Catholic owned public houses were a particular target, although the RUC Commissioner described them as “just sheer hooliganism, nothing else.”  Very much, as in later years of the Troubles, sectarian killings by the hundred were described as ‘motiveless murders.’

In October this anger boiled over once more when the Hunt Report recommended that the RUC be disarmed and the B-Specials be replaced by a new locally recruited regiment of the British Army, to be called the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).  This was recognised as an important step and was described by the forerunner of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Derry as a “hitherto unbelievably successful conclusion” to the civil rights movement if fully implemented.  Peoples Democracy described the reforms as striking “at the very heart of the traditional Unionist machine.”

John Hume welcomed the findings of the Report, while his fellow MP Ivan Cooper appealed for Catholics to join the RUC and Austin Currie stated that he was prepared to join himself.  The NICRA executive stated that the long-term good required every section of the community to join.

In the event the RUC was never disarmed, they were even at this early stage permitted to carry arms ‘in certain circumstances’, and the replacement for the B-Specials was suitably similar for it to earn its own reputation for sectarianism.  Even at the time it was clear that the personnel in the existing RUC responsible for violent sectarian acts were going nowhere and the even more unacceptable members of the B-Specials were being sent application forms to join the new UDR, which many of them did.  Half the UDR in County Derry when the force became operational in April 1970 were former members.

In true Orwellian style John McKeague from the Shankill Defence Association warned that “the day is fast approaching when responsible leaders and associations like ourselves will no longer be able to restrain the backlash of outraged Loyalist opinion.”

On Saturday 11 October 3,000 loyalists decide to show how they would defend the RUC that a few months earlier they had expelled from the Shankill Road.  As ever, anger at actions of the British Government was to be expressed through attacks on Catholics, in this case the march down the Shankill was to attack Unity Flats.

Yards from the Flats they met an RUC line with the British Army behind.  Waving Union flags they attacked the RUC and, when the scale of the rioting reduced, they opened fire with rifles, sub-machine guns and machine guns.  The RUC retreated behind the military, so that twenty-two soldiers were hit and one RUC man killed. This was Victor Arbuckle, who was to be the first policeman killed in ‘the Troubles’, shot by loyalists protesting against the possibility that the RUC might be disarmed.

Image result for victor arbuckle ruc

The British Army did not immediately return fire but by 1.45 am they had begun using live rounds and no doubt expended their pent-up frustration at holding back for weeks while loyalists had thrown abuse.  By the end of the rioting 100 had been arrested and two had been shot dead, with fifty requiring hospital treatment, twenty with gunshot wounds. Loyalists attacked police in East Belfast with petrol bombs and snipers while the military prevented the burning of a Catholic church in North Belfast.  The next day the Shankill was sealed off and, as one British major put it, “we are searching everything, I’m afraid we’re not being very polite about it.”

– – – – – – –

Catholics initially felt satisfied at the actions of the British Army, although this was only a taste of what they were later to receive in much greater measure.  In Derry, Eamonn McCann recorded that ‘in the immediate aftermath of the fighting [the battle of the Bogside] relations between the army and most of the people of the area were very good . .’  He notes that women in the Bogside squabbled about whose turn it was to take the soldiers tea, although relations with the youth ‘were to deteriorate very quickly. ‘

James Callaghan had visited Belfast and Derry after the introduction of the British Army on the streets  and while Westminster publicly reaffirmed Stormont’s position, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson also announced that the B-Specials would be phased out, a tribunal to investigate the riots would be set up and one would be commissioned to look at re-organisation of the RUC.  Behind the scenes reforms were to be speeded up and the Government in London would monitor what was going on more closely through the appointment of a permanent representative in the North.

The reaction to the visit of the London Minister of Home Affairs also demonstrated the support and trust that most of the Catholic population offered at that time.  As McCann again records – ‘Callaghan had not just impressed members of the Defence Committee; he had been very popular with the people as a whole.’

He also impressed the Belfast Central Citizens Defence Committee (CCDC) which was discussing whether to take the barricades down and accept the promise of the British army that their presence at the end of every street would prevent further loyalist attacks.  These attacks had continued at a lower level of intensity in West Belfast, Ardoyne, Highfield Estate, the Shore Road in North Belfast and in East Belfast.

The Catholic Church played a prominent role in trying to get them down and, first in Belfast and then in Derry, the Defence Committees agreed, with the last coming down in October.  The republican Jim Sullivan stated that the CCDC ‘were now confident that the army would provide adequate protection.’

After the clashes between the British Army and loyalists on the Shankill the leaders of the CCDC allowed the police to come back into the Falls and on 16 October the new RUC Inspector General was conducted on a tour of the area by Jim Sullivan and Father Murphy, a prominent Catholic priest who had pushed hard to get the barricades removed.

On the day of the publication of the Hunt Report the Derry Defence Committee announced through its chairman, Sean Keenan, later to be a member of the Provisionals, that it was to disband, saying that the government “might wait a week before sending in the RUC, but that is entirely a matter for the military authorities.  With the police force reorganised there will be no objection from the residents of the Bogside. I hope they will be wearing their new uniforms when they come in.”

When he arrived, the British officer commanding the newly deployed troops, General Freeland, predicted that the Army’s honeymoon with the nationalist population would not last, and it didn’t.

*Liam Kelly, ‘Belfast August 1969’ in ‘Riotous Assemblies’

Back to part 13

Forward to part 15

The Belfast rape case and women’s rights

The nine-week rape trial in Belfast gripped not only the interest of many people in the North of Ireland but many in the South as well. I normally don’t take much, if any, interest in these cases as I regard them as normally fixating on individual questions of evil or wrong doing and diverting from social problems that often lie behind individual misfortune.  They often seem to be exercises in schadenfreude and prurience for many people.

I followed this case because it quickly became apparent that it involved not only trauma for the young woman at the centre of it, and a question of the guilt or otherwise of the four accused, but because it didn’t so much divert attention to an individual assault considered in isolation, as draw into focus sexual violence against women in general, and by extension wider questions of the position of women in society.

The verdict of not guilty found on behalf of the four accused – two charged of rape, one of indecent exposure and one of perverting the course of justice – prompted demonstrations outside the court in Belfast and in Dublin city centre, as well as a couple of other Irish towns.

This was a result of a number of factors, including the ‘celebrity’ status of the accused, with those charged with rape being prominent rugby players who had turned out for Ulster and Ireland, and the way the case was conducted.

For example: the trial involved the young woman being questioned over 8 days while each of the accused sat for no more than one day in the box. The latter was due of course to the decision of the prosecuting lawyers, who must have decided that while the testimony of one woman had required eight appearances, that of each of the accused warranted no more than one.  No wonder it is claimed that it is often the woman who appears to be on trial.

Two other points stood out.  The defence barrister’s summing up included the statement “why didn’t she scream the house down? A lot of very middle-class girls were downstairs. They were not going to tolerate rape or anything like that.”  Unlike presumably working class women?  That anyone thought this was a good argument to put to a jury says something for some attitudes in the legal profession.

This alone makes the statement of the Green Party politician Claire Bailey, that the case was not about class but only about gender, mistaken.  As the young woman texted in the morning after – “What happened was not consensual. I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea because that’ll work.”

If one sport in Northern Ireland can be regarded as steeped in class it’s rugby, with its roots in ‘middle class’ grammar schools and traditionally played by Protestants.

It’s not something I have any affinity with, even though I had to play it at school. My father had no interest in it at all and used to tell me it was a game for the toffs; I should support Wales because it at least had working class players.  And while the development of the professional game has eroded such factors, I get the impression that this isn’t quite so much the case in the North of Ireland. Having been to one Ulster rugby match I could tell it was nothing like watching football.

The other crucial point was exposure of the numerous Whatsapp messages between the accused after the party at which the rape was alleged to have taken place, which were crudely misogynistic.  It is these displays of vulgar insults against women which have been taken up by subsequent protests and that has fuelled the continuing controversy, precisely because there is no denying their provenance.

On top of these was the less than contrite tone, in fact many might say quite aggressive tone, of the statement following the trial by the defence solicitor for the most prominent of the accused.  The latter hardly smoothed the waters by threatening to sue those who questioned the verdict on social media afterwards.  His more contrite tone in a statement issued nine days later was dismissed by many as way too late, with the suspicion voiced that it had more to do with countering the growing call for an end to his current rugby career than being a genuine act of regret.

Calls, including a petition and newspaper advert, for the players not to be selected again for Ulster and Ireland were countered by opposite calls by other Ulster rugby supporters, who said they would refuse to buy season tickets if the players were not selected again.

Call me paranoid if you want, but when I read statements that seem to see only the man as the victim, that claim to be from the “silent majority’ (who are of course never silent when they make this claim, irrespective of whether they are actually a majority or not); and use other common reactionary tropes such as being “real fans” of Ulster, presumably in contrast to the unreal(?) ones who called for them not to be selected again; well I think I’m entitled to argue that this ‘silent majority’ are also reactionaries who are oblivious to the misogynistic rants of their heroes and the gravity of the effect of their behaviour, whether criminal or not.

I’m afraid however that I must also say that I don’t give a shit whether they represent Ireland and Ulster again or not, and not just because I don’t give a shit about rugby itself.  The Green politician Claire Bailey again said that “this is my Ulster team as well’ – she must be a fan of rugby; while for me the very idea that a sports team could represent a whole country or province is such a lot of fictional nonsense that only buying into the notion of a united ‘national interest’ or un-conflicted ‘national identity’ could make any of this in any way rational. But then nationalism is essentially reactionary anyway, and all the more powerful for being uncritically assumed in many different circumstances, including this one.

I’ve never felt that something being Irish meant I had to have some positive feelings about it, from the Irish State to Irish beef from Irish cows – what the hell is an Irish cow?  These people never ‘represented’ me at any time, no matter what might be understood by such an idea.

However, if there is one thing more powerful than nationalism it is the power of money, and it may well have been that the power of money coming from sponsors has weighed more heavily than anything in the club’s decision that the players will no longer play for them.

For those campaigning for such a decision, this will be seen as a victory against a misogynist culture within the sport, including a victory for women rugby players, with wider ramifications for the position of women in society.  Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that the demands of the Belfast Feminist Network raised during protests are altogether progressive.

There can’t be any objection to improved education against misogyny, and in this case on the question of consent, but the oppression suffered by women is grounded in much more fundamental aspects of society than the culture of the media, justice system and education.  All aspects of the same state from which they expect a solution.

As I’ve noted, far from class being irrelevant, the explicit references to it and the role of money in determining one outcome of the case demonstrates that the position of many women in society, and women as a whole, is based on inequalities of power that are rooted in the class structure of society.  It will simply not be possible for women to achieve full equality if class inequality remains.

This is neither a claim that women’s demands must be dropped while class demands are pursued, or that progress on removing class oppression will of itself remove oppression suffered by women.  It is a claim that women’s equality cannot be simply gender equality within a class-ridden capitalist system.  This meets neither the interests of working class women or of men.

The goal of a socialist society is the free development of the individual from social oppression, not from the individual antagonisms that eventuate from imperfect human beings who will never live in a perfect society, even if that term meant anything.  This is not an excuse for continued sexism but a claim that ending social oppression can only arise out of the struggle to which socialism is devoted, and that this must include the ending of systematic oppression of women, plus repression of gay people and an end to all forms of racism.

Most immediately in Ireland the outcome of the Belfast rape trial shows the importance of repealing the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution which criminalises abortion.

There is widespread commentary that, while there is sympathy among some that women should be allowed to have an abortion in cases of rape, the eighth amendment should not be repealed because legislation will be introduced that facilitates abortion up to 12 weeks in cases where there hasn’t been rape.

What this case shows is that even on this rather narrow ground this is indefensible.  We already know that most sexual assaults aren’t reported and this case has shown what sometimes happens even when they are.  What it highlights, is the need for women to be able to control their own bodies. The fight against rape is one such fight and so is the struggle for abortion rights.

James Connolly, Socialism and Sinn Fein

The front-page headline of ‘The Irish News’ yesterday read ‘Sinn Fein and DUP accused of ‘political carve-up’ of £4m’ – a report on the joint decision of the two parties in Belfast City Council to spend £2m on museums and a ‘training hotel’.  The training hotel is a ‘social economy training hotel’ in the loyalist Shankill area and the museums include an Orange Hall museum and a ‘James Connolly Interpretive Centre.’

The latest collaboration between the two best of enemies has not been prevented by their failure to agree terms on a return to Stormont rule, and has been compared to the paramilitary slush fund that is the Strategic Investment Fund.  Opponents have claimed that the funding of the projects in the home base of the two parties has not offered “even an illusion of fairness” and has been put forward with a “complete lack of transparency”. According to ‘The Irish News’, Belfast City Council could not provide minutes of the committee meetings at which the decisions were taken.

The justification for the museums etc. is that they will hugely develop tourism and promote heritage.  So very Irish and very peace-process; money to oil the wheels of ‘peace’.

What James Connolly would have thought of his relatively short stay in Belfast being employed as part of a political carve up, with him on one side and an Orange museum on the other, is not hard to guess.  A report of the new ‘interpretive centre’ has a link to a speech by Martin McGuinness, stating that the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising and subsequent events should be “mature and inoffensive”.  One must therefore look forward to any new centre providing such an interpretation of Connolly’s views on Orangeism, with which his memory will now be twinned.

I also look forward to its interpretation of Connolly’s socialism, which is the very opposite of Irish republican and of much socialist opinion as well, and which is particularly apposite to this proposed municipal initiative.  The following article – ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism’ – written by Connolly in the ‘Workers Republic’ in 1899 is more relevant today than when it was written over a century ago:

“One of the most significant signs of our times is the readiness with which our struggling middle class turns to schemes of State or Municipal ownership and control, for relief from the economic pressure under which it is struggling. Thus we find in England demands for the nationalisation of the telephone system, for the extension of municipal enterprise in the use of electricity, for the extension of the parcel system in the Post Office, for the nationalisation of railways and canals.”

“In Ireland we have our middle class reformers demanding state help for agriculture, state purchase of lands, arterial draining, state construction of docks, piers and harbours, state aid for the fishing industry, state control of the relations between agricultural tenant and landlord, and also nationalisation of railways and canals.”

“There is a certain section of Socialists, chiefly in England, who never tire of hailing all such demands for state activity as a sign of the growth of the Socialist spirit among the middle class, and therefore worthy of all the support the working-class democracy can give. In some degree such a view seems justifiable. The fact that large sections of the capitalist class join in demanding the intervention of the State in industry is a sure sign that they, at least, have lost the overweening belief in the all-sufficiency of private enterprise which characterised their class a generation ago; and that they have been forced to recognise the fact that there are a multitude of things in which the ‘brain’, ‘self-reliance’, and ‘personal responsibility’ of the capitalist are entirely unnecessary.”

“To argue that, since in such enterprises the private property-holder is dispensed with, therefore he can be dispensed with in all other forms of industrial activity, is logical enough and we really fail to see in what manner the advocates of capitalist society can continue to clamour for such state ownership as that alluded to – ownership in which the private capitalist is seen to be superfluous, and yet continue to argue that in all other forms of industry the private capitalist is indispensable. For it must be remembered that every function of a useful character performed by the State or Municipality to-day was at one time performed by private individuals for profit, and in conformity with the then generally accepted belief that it could not be satisfactorily performed except by private individuals.”

“But all this notwithstanding, we would, without undue desire to carp or cavil, point out that to call such demands ‘Socialistic’ is in the highest degree misleading. Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism.”

“The demands of the middle-class reformers, from the Railway Reform League down, are simply plans to facilitate the business transactions of the capitalist class. State Telephones – to cheapen messages in the interest of the middle class who are the principal users of the telephone system; State Railways – to cheapen carriage of goods in the interest of the middle-class trader; State-construction of piers, docks, etc. – in the interest of the middle-class merchant; in fact every scheme now advanced in which the help of the State is invoked is a scheme to lighten the burden of the capitalist – trader, manufacturer, or farmer.”

“Were they all in working order to-morrow the change would not necessarily benefit the working class; we would still have in our state industries, as in the Post Office to-day, the same unfair classification of salaries, and the same despotic rule of an irresponsible head. Those who worked most and hardest would still get the least remuneration, and the rank and file would still be deprived of all voice in the ordering of their industry, just the same as in all private enterprises.”

“Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials – but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.”

“Schemes of state and municipal ownership, if unaccompanied by this co-operative principle, are but schemes for the perfectioning of the mechanism of capitalist government-schemes to make the capitalist regime respectable and efficient for the purposes of the capitalist; in the second place they represent the class-conscious instinct of the business man who feels that capitalist should not prey upon capitalist, while all may unite to prey upon the workers. The chief immediate sufferers from private ownership of railways, canals, and telephones are the middle class shop-keeping element, and their resentment at the tariffs imposed is but the capitalist political expression of the old adage that “dog should not eat dog.”

“It will thus be seen that an immense gulf separates the ‘nationalising’ proposals of the middle class from the ‘socialising’ demands of the revolutionary working class. The first proposes to endow a Class State – repository of the political power of the Capitalist Class – with certain powers and functions to be administered in the common interest of the possessing class; the second proposes to subvert the Class State and replace it with the Socialist State, representing organised society – the Socialist Republic. To the cry of the middle class reformers, “make this or that the property of the government,” we reply, “yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.”

 

 

The politics of murder in Belfast

images (11)The murder of Kevin McGuigan on 12 August in East Belfast is widely seen as revenge for the former’s claimed involvement in the earlier murder of Provisional IRA leader Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have done their bit to protect the Provisional movement by claiming that although Provisional IRA members were involved there is no evidence that it was authorised by the leadership.  Since complete denial of Provo involvement would stretch credibility to breaking point and reflect on the PSNI as well as the Provos, this was as much as they could do.

Of course this makes no sense, although it was notable that some nationalist commentators were prepared to swallow it.  Much amazement was feigned by unionists that an IRA even existed, so ‘answers’ were demanded.  The British Government said that of course it knew the IRA existed but that what was important was what Sinn Fein said (i.e. not what the IRA actually did) and especially that it continued to express support for the ‘principles of democracy and consent”.

The Garda in the South had previously claimed that the IRA had no military structure but are going to look at it again and the PSNI claimed it was a lobby group for “peaceful, political republicanism”.  Sinn Fein spokesmen claimed that of course the IRA was not involved, that it had “gone away” and all allegations to the contrary were ‘palitics’.

So the Provos continue to support the police but not as far as allowing them to get in the way of taking revenge or protecting themselves and their enormous financial empire. Support for the police is therefore purely ‘palitical’.

In the hypocrisy and lying stakes each out-does the other.

So the British Government and PSNI are claiming that while a much slimmed-down ‘peaceful’ IRA exists there is no evidence that it sanctioned the murder of McGuigan; although investigations will continue, which means that if it suits the political purposes of the British Government such a judgement can be easily changed. And easily justified – a ‘peaceful’ IRA with guns, that murders its enemies, and which by its very reduced size and tightness makes inconceivable the idea that the murder was not approved from the top.

The meaning of this is obvious: the British state and its police force doesn’t care if the Provisional IRA kills people it doesn’t like.  It doesn’t care if loyalist paramilitaries kill people they don’t like. Round the corner from where McGuigan was killed a young woman was almost killed by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force but the PSNI refused to blame the UVF who were responsible.

Today it is reported that the murder of another Short Strand man Robert McCartney by the Provos was subject of a secret deal between the PSNI and Provos, with the cops offering not to go after those who cleared up the murder scene, in exchange for Provo information on the less important hands-on killers.  No one has gone to jail and the Provos kept their mouths shut.

The political import of the killing is the following:

The Provos can kill and the state will give them impunity but it will expect a price to be paid.  Anyone who thinks that the end of Sinn Fein’s meagre opposition to austerity through opposition to some welfare cuts will not form part of the price probably believes that everything that the British Government, police, unionists and Sinn Fein has said about the murder of Kevin McGuigan is 100% true.

A message has been sent to all enemies of the Provos, political or criminal, that they are willing and able to kill, no doubt under some new set of initials such as AAD (Action Against Drugs).

The slow crumbling of the architecture of the political peace settlement has speeded up and now threatens the current arrangements.  The Ulster Unionist Party has withdrawn from the all-party Executive, putting pressure on its supposed more rabid rivals in the DUP to follow its lead.

The DUP has now proposed that Sinn Fein be expelled from the Executive, although Sinn Fein can prevent it, and only the British Government can do this.  If the British do not support such a move the DUP would then be forced to either put its money where its mouth is and walk themselves, bringing down the Executive, or reveal themselves as joined at the hip to the Provos in the great gravy train on the hill.  It might then start losing support.

As the pro-settlement ‘Irish News’ editorial put it today, the Executive is so discredited most will not care if it remains or goes.  And as I have noted before, the current Stormont regime is so rotten it has little credibility left.

The peace process has been built on the lie that the rotten sectarian arrangement brought about the absence of widespread political violence.  In fact the defeat of the Provos and the ending of widespread violence preceded the creation of the rotten sectarian arrangements.  Again and again the sectarian political settlement has been defended by the claim its overthrow would bring us back to the troubles.

The recent killings demonstrate precisely the opposite.  The existence of the sectarian Assembly and Executive is now justifying collusion between the state, Provos and loyalist paramilitaries in violence, intimidation and large scale criminality.  The message from the British pro-consul has been explicit:  as long as Sinn Fein supports the sectarian settlement and police that is what counts.  What it actually does will be excused and glossed over if remotely possible.  The so-called peace settlement and its preservation is now the justification for allowing political and criminal violence.

Socialists must continue to oppose this rotten settlement.  They should continue to oppose the PSNI and expose its collusion with the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.  They should oppose the austerity imposed by the British Government and the Stormont parties, especially Sinn Fein and its phoney anti-austerity posturing.

It should likewise refuse to offer political support to any opposition by Sinn Fein to its exclusion from Government should this occur.  The Provisional movement is an obstacle to working class people in the North and South of Ireland identifying their own interests and defending them.

Racism and anti-racism in Belfast

 

DSC_0117“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.  Enoch Powell was a prophet, he called it that blood would flow on the streets and it has happened.”

When a Protestant minister in North Belfast’s Metropolitan Tabernacle Church declared that Islam was “satanic” and “heathen” and compared “cells” of Muslims in Britain to the IRA the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who is known to have attended the church, was widely called upon to speak out.

Oh dear.

When he did, he said that Pastor McConnell had been demonised, that it was the duty of any preacher to denounce what he described as “false prophesy” and said he would not trust Muslims either, particularly with regard to those who had been involved in violence, or those who are “fully devoted to Sharia law, I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance”; however he would trust Muslims to “go down to the shops” for him or to deal with a number of “day-to -day issues”.

Cue lots of people with their heads in their hands, especially those considering the Northern Ireland administration sponsored trips to the Middle East to promote trade and investment.

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A newly elected unionist councillor for Belfast had that week been found to have tweeted a year earlier that “I’m so sick of the poor Catholic b*stards they make me sick I wish they would just go down to Ireland . .” but she was young and sectarianism is hardly news in the North of Ireland unless someone in the media decides to make it news.

But racist attacks, especially by loyalist paramilitaries, have already been in the news and have increased by 43 per cent over the year, twenty seven per cent of them in North Belfast.  Having been called upon to comment in order to denounce racism, Robinson was then called upon to apologise for his own offensive and insulting remarks.

Anna Lo, the Hong Kong born local politician, had just received some racist harassment herself and called upon him to resign if he did not publicly apologise, vowing to leave Northern Ireland because of local racism and  sectarianism and stating that she would not stand for election again.  One Democratic Unionist Party councillor then called her a “racist” and was dropped by that party as its candidate for mayor of Newtownabbey, which is adjacent to North Belfast.  Other ministers and unionist politicians backed McConnell and claimed Christianity was being persecuted.

Two Muslim men where then beaten in their homes in the north of the city and stated that their attack was connected to Robinson’s statement – he had “lit the fire”.

Some in the press and other unionist leaders attempted to minimise the impact of the insult by claiming he was just clumsy.  Michael Nesbitt, leader of the Unionist Party, claimed that “we say things we don’t really mean or express them in ways that perhaps we could have thought through better.”

Robinson then made a private apology to some prominent local Muslims, except it wasn’t an apology.  He didn’t admit to being wrong, did not withdraw the remarks and did not say he was unconditionally ‘sorry’.   What apparently he did say was that “If” anyone thought he had said anything derogatory “he would be hurt” and he would apologise, but he didn’t because he didn’t think so.  He had been ‘misinterpreted’.

So he might be the injured party in this episode and it was everybody else’s fault for not understanding him.

But still the calls for a public apology raged and eventually Peter Robinson did publicly apologise – except the apology wasn’t public.  It was one of those occasions when the media reports something and you look to see when and how it happened but you can’t actually find any evidence of it having happened, and when you look closer it appears that it hasn’t actually happened.  Yet most assume it has because it has been reported and before you now it it has happened because, well, that is how it has been reported.

In such cases this can only occur because everyone with any power to get across a media message has decided it’s in their interests to go along with the concealment.  For the unionist parties the interest involved is obvious.  Any gain in stature among its racist, sectarian and lumpen base has been achieved, while the reality of selling local business to Saudi Arabia etc. cannot be ignored so the controversy has to be closed down.

The British Government especially would be happy for the story to die no matter how this might happen and they showed no intention of doing anything that might shine a light on the bigoted character of their local political settlement, sold to the world as a model to be admired and to emulate.

But what about the nationalists, including Sinn Fein?  The second dog that did not bark was the failure of these parties to call upon Robinson to resign, as – to her credit – Anna Lo did.  Had such remarks been made in Britain by a leading member of the Conservative Government their feet would not have touched the ground as they headed for political exile and extinction. But not here.

What we got here was a bland resolution sponsored by Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly opposing “racism, discrimination and intolerance of any kind, wherever it occurs”  but for God’s sake don’t mention that the First Minister has promoted all three.

What such resolutions reveal is not the willingness of Irish nationalism to oppose racism and bigotry but its willingness to avoid doing so, to avoid identifying and condemning it in reality, to replace lofty, banal and meaningless condemnations of racism in general for dealing with it in concrete reality.

Sinn Fein is setting itself up to be in Government North and South in 1916, 100 years from the Easter Rising that saw the beginnings of an attempt, that failed, to achieve Irish independence.  To do so it must ensure that there is an administration around in the North for it to be a part of.  Since this requires unionist participation no provocation or act, irrespective of how outrageous it is, will be allowed to threaten the political structure in the North no matter how rotten, dysfunctional and bereft of credibility it may prove itself to be.

In this way a political settlement based on sectarianism demonstrates its bigoted logic by ensuring that the most offensive statements can be made without fear.   In this way, but not only in this way, Irish nationalism becomes complicit in feeding the bigotry on which the Northern state rests, even while it self-righteously insists on its own non-sectarian character and its supporters continue to be the main victims of the bigotry.

What the Government parties are called upon to do, unionist and nationalist, is to deliver another document on “building a united, shared and reconciled community “, another piece of paper reviewing Stormont’s ‘Unite Against Hate’ campaign and together parrot inane promises from within ”its clear commitment within the Programme for Government.”

So if nationalism cannot provide an opposition to racist bigotry who can?

In a demonstration of thousands called quickly over social media a trade union spokesmen could only say that it was organised “in response to a worrying increase in the number of racist attacks in recent weeks, a situation which has been exacerbated by inflammatory comments by some religious and political leaders.”

Once again the identity of these racists couldn’t be stated.  Throwing a punch in mid-air takes the place of landing a blow on the real bigots who are allowed to continue to disclaim responsibility through the connivance of the media, political opponents and cowardice of others.

What political leaders are the racists?  How can you oppose something when you cannot even name it?  How are their excuses and non-apologies to be challenged?  How is the collusion of others to be highlighted and exposed?  How is their hypocrisy to be demonstrated?  And what is your alternative?

The trade unions bemoaned “the absence of the promised Racial Equality Strategy and the lack of coherent political leadership from the Northern Ireland Executive” as if pieces of paper are a solution and coherent racism would be better.

This hasn’t worked before and it’s not going to work now.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic minorities called a second demonstration today and got a good turn-out given the bad weather.  Again however there was no call for Robinson to resign despite his remarks and his non-public public apology that retracted nothing of the substance of what he had said.

Some People Before Profit placards called for his resignation and some chants from the Socialist Party contingent called for him to go but the latter’s leaflet didn’t mention it and instead claimed his apology was a great victory for anti-racists despite it being obvious that these forces played a relatively minor role.

Such repulsive episodes highlight the rotten character of politics in the North of Ireland because they involve relatively new targets but the solution that is always proposed is that local politicians be something that they are not and do something opposite to what they have just done.  That they oppose bigotry and sectarianism even while the sectarian basis of the political settlement is supported because it is part of the peace process.  ‘Peace’ becomes the excuse for yet more and more injustice because an alternative to the present political deal cannot be conceived.

Debating what such an alternative could be would be a start to addressing this obstacle.

 

Loyalists riot in Belfast against Republican demonstration

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By Belfast Plebian

Yesterday I decided to participate in an anti-internment demonstration in Belfast. I could not get to the starting point so thought to join at the midpoint in central Belfast.  The demo I think was organised to do three things: to commemorate the August 1971 introduction of imprisonment without trail, to highlight the continuation of the same policy by less conspicuous means, imprisonment for long stretches of time under the guise of waiting for a trial date; internment on remand, and finally the abuse of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in other ‘special facilities’.

I am not big on the commemoration thing, a street demonstration is a very inferior way of coming to a coherent understanding of past political events, however the other two are very important just now because the democratic rights of common people are under sustained attack in the countries that first originated them, namely in the United States, France and Britain.

The comprehensive attack on democratic rights is turning into something ever more serious in most bourgeois democracies.  Just last month the British Government passed into law something called the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA). The key provision creates a new procedure to permit the use of secret evidence and testimony against a defendant in any civil case in the UK.  The new measure constitutes yet another negation of the democratic rights of the individual in relation to the powers of the State.

The new provision is called ‘a closed material procedure’ (CMP) and it means that a defendant’s barrister will have no right to question the evidence against a client if the CMP procedure is invoked by the State.  The new courts will also now have the power to make use of evidence against defendants not previously disclosed to their legal team.

The JSA is a response to the case of Binyam Mohammed, a British citizen who was detained at Guantanamo. His legal team had forced a civil action against the British government for being complicit in his torture in 2011 and evidence came to light in court that showed that British police agents had secretly assisted in his torture and rendition.  The judge in the case had ruled that the secret police material was admissible. Now this sort of secret evidence is to be totally closed to viewing.

The new act is a change to the already highly restrictive Public Interest Immunity procedure frequently used during the ‘troubles’ to keep evidence of crimes committed by the security forces from legal examination.  From now on, even the presiding judge in a case will no longer have a say on what kind of evidence can be scrutinised by a jury.  It means the abandonment of civil courts presided over by judges in favour of political courts manipulated government officials against selected defendants.  In the closed material procedure only the government and its lawyers will be present before the judge.  The defendant and their lawyer will not be present in court, they will not be permitted to see the evidence being presented if it depends on ‘sensitive security material’. Also the defendant is not entitled to know the reasons why the judge came to a decision. The Act is to apply to ‘all relevant civil proceedings’ in the High Court, Court of Appeal, Court of Sessions and the Supreme Court. The above is just one way by which the rights of people are being curtailed by government.

The problem you always have to deal with when defending basic democratic rights in the North of Ireland is that those who do so are habitually associated with republican inspired anti- British feeling, not just by the State officials but by the organised part of political Unionism. So as I strode into the city centre the first thing I noticed was a very large number of angry loyalists gathered at one end of Royal Avenue, who were obviously hell bent on preventing a so called ‘dissident republican’ march from getting into their beloved British city centre.

They had been gathering for hours and had reached two thousand strong by about six o’clock. I wondered why there were so few police officers on duty, only a tiny fraction of the number that had been on duty for the G8 demo and I wondered why so many loyalists had been allowed to gather unhindered on the very street that the anti-internment demo was supposed to pass along.

I mingled with the loyalists for about an hour; the mood was ugly and the loyalists looked well up for a street battle. A riot then kicked into full swing when the police asked some loyalists to move into a designated zone behind a makeshift barrier consisting of a handful of police land rovers. It was pretty obvious that there would be no anti-internment rally passing down Royal Avenue this evening.  The loyalists were by now in full riot mode, getting tore into the police at close quarters, tossing bricks and bottles.

It was very striking just how many loyalists had turned out to stop what they considered to be a provocation by the ‘other side’ from holding a small political demonstration. The ‘other side’ were the despised Irish republican enemy without any equivocation or qualification. To be honest it has hard to see how the loyalists present could ever be reconciled to the State granting the same right to free assembly for republicans and reds in a city that they maintain is exclusively British and monarchist.

It does not look good for the ‘shared future’, with so many alienated loyalists regularly attacking the PSNI on the streets.  The DUP and the Unionist Party are clearly feeling a rising pressure to resile from the rather forced agreement they made with Sinn Fein called the Good Friday Agreement.

The British government on its part has no big idea or plan to settle things with the loyalists. The big idea of bourgeois democracy I believe includes a principle best articulated by Abe Lincoln in the famous Gettysburg Address, that in a democracy in contrast to a monarch- aristocracy ‘all men are created equal’: meaning they are all entitled to the same constitutional rights as something universal.

Bourgeois democracy is built on two platforms: free and fair elections leading to a democratic government and universal democratic rights. Ulster Unionism currently bows down to only the one platform of bourgeois democracy, the free and fair elections platform part, and even this is qualified by the anti-democratic forced partition of 1920

When the great majority of Irish nationalists voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement it surely indicated that they were now ready to treat partition as an accidental error and not a terrible historical grievance perpetuated against them. They believed that by dropping the Irish constitutional articles on sovereignty, this act of political humility would be enough to lend a necessary democratic legitimacy to a perpetually insecure Unionism that would be great enough to allow for a future of peace and equality.

But Unionism accepted the offer ever so reluctantly and made no corresponding provision for Lincoln’s universal rights; unionist democracy just stayed thinking and behaving as in the past; an elected government should mean majority rule, and we the Protestants are the majority and our rights must come first. It should be recalled that the majority of unionists actually opposed the initial Trimble made Good Friday Agreement.

Majority rule was in fact the democratic cry of the Southern Confederacy; those states commanded a popular majority in favour of maintaining things as they stood, and in 1860 this so happened to include slavery.  The best of them who were not slave owners fought in the name of a democratic majority rule, a right of self- government in the seven and then eleven Southern States.  In their minds Lincoln was the opponent of democracy, the Tyrant of the Federal Union. The task of educating the American people in 1860 as to the essence of bourgeois democracy, that it was about more than not just having an elected government but was also about universal rights fell to Lincoln. The example of the American Confederacy is good reason why self-government in the name of a majority is not always for the better.

I am not suggesting that British Unionism in Ireland is in favour of slavery; in fact it has always favoured free wage labour and private property.  What I am suggesting is that it has no stomach for digesting the bourgeois principle that all men are created equal, and this is at the very heart of the matter and largely explains why there is so little of what is termed normal democratic politics to be seen in the here and now.

It should be said, this is not unique to Ireland, it appears almost everywhere in variations.  Across the Middle East the overthrowing of the military dictatorships in Iraq, Libya, Egypt were superseded by democracies that insisted on the unalloyed sectarian viewpoint of the majority must rule, there is no room for universal democratic rights. Marxists in particular need constant reminding that just getting to the normal state of bourgeois democracy and keeping it going is a massive undertaking in itself.

Karl Marx in1860 thought that if the side of Lincoln were defeated it would be a massive blow to the historical advance of the working class in Europe.  Leon Trotsky argued in 1933 that the smashing of bourgeois democracy in Germany would be a much greater blow to the international working class than the Stalinists at that time imagined. It is all too easy to downgrade the democratic rights side of the socialist programme in pursuit of the maximum or even the transitional demands of the socialist programme.

I decided to move away from the town centre and try and join up with the anti-internment demo at another place. I was told that the demo would most likely be rerouted along Millfield, a street that connects North Belfast to the lower Falls Road. As I took to my heels the police decided to do a pincer on the hundred or so mainly nationalist youths still standing at the juncture of Castle Street and Royal Avenue. They came at us from two directions and forced us up into Castle Street.

It was then that the nationalists realised their chance of joining the demo in the city centre was gone for this time. Some of them began chanting the familiar old anti police slogan SS-RUC, others mentioned groundhog day and moved away – the police had capitulated in the face of loyalist fury said others.  I walked up to Millfield and waited and waited without really knowing what was happening, the wait lasted for a couple of hours

Eventually, at about nine o’clock the head of the demo appeared, it was a substantial demo of about 1800 people; they looked tired but not demoralised.  The 300 hundred or so people waiting for them to arrive cheered and clapped like supporters standing at a football match. They joined the demonstration and it proceeded to snake its way up the Falls Road to the final destination point in Andersonstown.

I did not stay to listen to the speeches; I guessed they would be of a traditional republican hue something that I have heard many times before. I had still some walking to do to get back home, the buses were not operating, it was eleven thirty when I finally made it back to the house, an intended hour spent at a demo had turned into a seven hour marathon. 

Making a political assessment of the significance of the demo is a little more difficult than with loyalism. The demo was the biggest one that has occurred in Belfast organised by diverse republican and residents groups not aligned to Sinn Fein. The very subjective impression I got was that those on and those supporting the demo were drawn mainly from the very poorest segment of Belfast society, the loyalists gathering was composed of working class people too but they looked more prosperous in their general appearance.

They were certainly the sort of working class people who in earlier days used to be solid behind the IRA and Sinn Fein. The fact that Sinn Fein has lost some of its urban working class support is not that significant in electoral terms because the party has definitely replaced that support with those who used to be sympathetic to the political party of steady decline the SDLP.

A feature worth mentioning is the age profile, previous republican demos that I have witnessed were staffed by well seasoned not to say aging types; the bulk of the people on this one were under 30. What was positive was a genuine will not to get drawn into a sectarian street battle with loyalists. One young republican that I spoke to was worried that loyalists had come out to block their way. Why, he asked, do loyalists fight against things like demanding an end to interment on demand, something that oppresses them as much as it does us?

I think the organisers of the demonstration will be pleased with what they got and they will likely try to build on it by staging more of the same. However it might still be the case that the marked increase in the numbers of young people participating may actually just be a response to the rising tide of loyalist provocations generated by more and more loyalist street activities. It is too early to say if this represents a turning point against Sinn Fein within the old core republican community.  

A couple of other things are worthy of note. I have listened to a good number of nationalists speak well of the PSNI of late for standing up to loyalist threats of violence, a nationalist expectation that the police will continue to perform well may well lead to a big let down in the near future with unpredictable consequences for those politicians who are trusting them the most.

It was also evident that there were no socialist currents either on the parade or around the fringes.  They have abandoned all thought of unfulfilled democratic tasks in pursuit of socialism for today, or rather what they consider to be socialism.  The assessment they make of the recalcitrant republicans is one they hold in common with hired pundits who work for the capitalist owned press; that they are dreadful atavistic nationalists whose time has thankfully gone.

I don’t really share this mode of thought because it is too undifferentiated; all of the recalcitrant republicans are not unthinking militarists. ‘The Irish News’ referred to all involved as ‘dissident republicans’ but it was certainly more diverse than that expression suggests. Today basic democratic rights are being shredded all too readily, the prospect for socialist advances are very poor in both Ireland and Britain and politics at this time of austerity is favouring the right wing rather than the left wing – just look at the advance of UKIP compared to the abject failures of the socialists to the left of the labour Party.

The pressures of being in government for the foreseeable future are sure to test an inexperienced Sinn Fein’s capacity for political survival and in the absence of anything even vaguely resembling a socialist movement in the North of Ireland the social conditions may well favour a surprising republican revival.

The G8 comes to Northern Ireland

DSC_0394The leaders of the G8 group of the wealthiest countries are meeting this week in rural County Fermanagh.  That some of the most powerful political leaders on the planet are visiting us is yet again another opportunity to demand of the local population the most obsequious and embarrassing homage to our betters.  Deference normally required only for royalty.  A columnist in a local paper reported that claims had been made that the visit would boost the local economy by something like £700 million, a figure so outlandish it does not even deserve ridicule.  More sober estimates have come in at less than £100 million but if the experience of Scotland is any guide the costs will easily exceed this and today I saw first-hand evidence that this will indeed be the case.

As is usual the media have been on overdrive to sell how wonderful this all is, normally in some vague and unspecified way, for example ‘it puts us on the map’, as if we weren’t already on it, and it gives us the opportunity to sell Northern Ireland. How often can you sell something that never gets bought?  It was the occasion for yet another economic package, announced by David Cameron, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.  But again it was déjà vu all over again.

The local Executive, it was announced, will be able to borrow an additional £100m for capital projects for shared housing for example.  But the Executive has just confirmed that it is incapable of providing shared housing through its handling of the old Girdwood British Army base in North Belfast.

And no one will be able to tell you what golden opportunities were being missed until now by absence of this money .

More measures to boost lending to business was promised but it has been reported in the financial press that the ConDem coalition has totally failed in its attempts to achieve this goal with its own schemes in Britain.  Borrowing just when bond yields are rising across the globe, even after countries have printed money like never before – heralding an end the recent era of low interest rates and an interest rate rise that may have devastating economic consequences – does not look the cleverest policy in terms of timing.  Projects to be financially profitable will have a higher hurdle to jump over than before.

More peace money is promised while the local paper’s front page reported this week that there had been  a 25 per cent increase in paramilitary intimidation; sanctioned by the local police who have approved the loyalist UVF’s marking of territory in East Belfast by their flying of their paramilitary flags on anything that doesn’t move.  Meanwhile the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders hatch an £80m slush fund for these same paramilitaries.

We are promised yet another investment conference while having witnessed the utter failure of previous ones and most recently been treated to the farce of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s ‘investment-promoting’ visits to China and Brazil. Again we are promised another look at devolution of powers to reduce corporation tax as if a different result might be expected.  The example of the Republic across the border should demonstrate even to the terminally stupid that low corporation tax is perfectly compatible with bankruptcy.

It is simply impossible for anyone with any appreciation of recent events not to be cynical because no matter how jaundiced a view one takes of this event it is exceeded by the malignant contempt shown by the visiting leaders and their local satraps.

Obama has sanctioned spying powers that make George Orwell’s 1984 look like a photograph of the future and he approves drone attacks that murder dozens if not hundreds of civilians.  We have Russia’s Vladimir Putin whose wars in the Caucuses have involved utter devastation on an enormous scale. Then we have the Japanese, attempting to lay the foundation for a new nationalist militarism by rewriting its murderous imperial history. These are the leaders we are asked to welcome as if we are blessed to breathe the same air.

But reality intrudes and the real character of their visit is revealed by the security clamp-down that looks like and feels like a police state. Roads in Fermanagh have been blocked for a month, causing problems for small businesses in the area, while young people doing their year-end exams have been told to get to school at an unearthly hour to do them.  Fences have been built and thousands of security personnel brought in.  Belfast city centre on Monday morning looks like it is to be closed down.  Sixteen miles of the M2 motorway into the city is also to be closed so that Obama can speak at the Waterfront Hall in praise of the peace process that never ends and never ends promising the end of strife.  Government workers have been told by email that they may have difficulty getting to work but should therefore plan to travel longer, get in earlier and leave later – section 3.11 of Annex 2 paragraph 4.1 of the HR policy is referenced.  With no hint of irony the responsibility to maintain services to the public is repeated.

The reality of the visit is revealed by the fresh painting over of empty shops in the county town of Enniskillen to make them look like they are open and full of people. Oh, and the hotel complex the meeting is in isn’t really in administration, not being a casualty of the Irish property boom.  The plan is obviously that the hype will cover up the reality and, well, if it doesn’t, we’ll be outa here soon anyway.

Holding the G8 in Northern Ireland was seen as a bold step.  Wasn’t this the scene of decades of trouble and didn’t the G8 risk occasioning more?  Hadn’t previous summits been the cause of widespread protest wherever they were held?

Well today, Saturday, was to be evidence of the scale of the opposition to the G8 leaders and their crimes.  A demonstration had been called by trade union leaders and assorted NGOs.

Unfortunately this opposition proved that it wanted to show, not that a different world was possible, but that a slightly different world would be nice.  The hype of the G8 cheerleaders was replicated in the ICTU Northern Ireland Committee’s leaflet, which promised ‘what is sure to be one of the largest mass mobilisations of peoplepower Belfast has seen.’   The demo was in fact no more than 2,000 people – maximum – and not much different than the usual May Day demonstration.  The annual 12 July Orange bigot-fest is many times larger.  The slogan of the demonstration that ‘they are G8 – we are 7 billion’ looked very hollow. Belfast City centre was unusually quiet.  The alternative of having the demonstration through some working class areas would never have crossed anyone’s mind, certainly not that of the trade union leaders.

As I walked the less than half mile to the demonstration starting point through Belfast city centre I must have passed about 70 police land rovers, and that was just on the route that I took.  Most of the coppers were English – they looked like they weren’t natives and were very much more po-faced than the local cops, despite the overtime.  There were hundreds of them.  A bigger case of over-kill it would be hard to imagine.  It might even be embarrassing for their top brass, were the media to make anything of this OTT display of the state’s repressive power.  This was a demo called by ICTU for god’s sake!

This is the same ICTU that has for years either been in partnership with the state, as in the South, or seeking partnership, in the North.  Its leader was a member of the Southern State’s Central Bank, the Regulator that allowed the ‘wild west’ financial system to accumulate so much debt it bankrupted the country.  This is the trade union movement responsible for the Irish being renowned throughout Europe for their ability to accept austerity that has caused riots in Greece, Spain and Portugal.  It wants a ‘better and fairer way’ to inflict the pain of austerity.  It doesn’t actually want to overthrow capitalism and socialism was not a word I heard at the rally at the end of the demonstration.

DSC_0416 Instead the speeches were declarations of opposition to bad things and support for good things and appeals to moral values such as fairness and justice.  Unfortunately the world is only as fair and a just as we can make it and in the meantime it is as just and as fair as the capitalist class considers it should be based on how it defines both.

What was missing was any strategy to change this situation and any agency that could enact this strategy.  What we were left with were appeals to the governments against whom we were actually demonstrating; appeals to the same states whose job it is to defend the system, not change it – the same state that put on show such a massive show of force to justify its hyping up of dire threats of violence.

As I and my friend left the rally and went into Boots for a short cut my friend was told to take down his hood – it had been pouring down for hours.  An older woman with grey hair was also told to take down her hood although she demanded to know why?  Was she hiding her identity so she could trash capitalism and then run into the street and avoid the hundreds of cops outside?  (Most of the bigger shops had massively increased security on their doors, another example of the hype surrounding the visit of the leaders of the ‘free’ world.)

One footnote: the rally outside the City Hall at the end of the demonstration was jeered and heckled by a group of perhaps 50 loyalists from the Shankill Road who were continuing their own protest against the butchers’ apron no longer being flown 365 days a year.  Ironically it was flying today, it being a ‘designated day’ because it was the Queen’s birthday – she has two don’t you know. These reactionary bigots sang sectarian songs including the ‘Billy Boys’, i.e. they were ‘up to their necks in fenian blood’ – a favourite of supporters of the now deceased football club Glasgow Rangers.  They waved the Israeli flag when the Palestinian cause was mentioned, booed loudly when the ‘Irish trade union movement’ was referenced and jeered when Derry was called Derry.

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For some on the left being anti-sectarian means pretending that Irish nationalism is just as sectarian as loyalism and there exists by definition a sectarian equals sign between the political expressions of the catholic population and the Protestant one.  That, in my 35 years of political demonstrations, I have never come across contingents of loyalists on trade union and socialist demonstrations while republican contingents, just as they were today, are commonplace and unremarkable, might therefore seem strange.  If I believed what some of the Left do this fact would be inexplicable. The loyalists however know they are reactionary and today they knew that they hated those on the demonstration.  They felt safe in the knowledge that the demonstrators were either ‘fenians’ or, even worse, ‘rotten prods’.

One other footnote:  there was no Sinn Fein contingent on the demonstration.  Even a few years ago they would have sent a youth contingent to keep up pretence of some radical credentials.  Now instead they parade the hope of corporation tax cuts and multinational investment beside the DUP and a British Tory prime minister announcing imperialist intervention in yet another country, this time Syria.  Their non-participation is one welcome clarification of what was otherwise unfortunately not much more than an exhibition of weakness before power.

Nelson McCausland, a little man with a big loud drum. (by Belfast plebian)

47925243_3707225203_e18c6d4d4e-1It is a hell of a misfortune that at this time of a drastic need for some form of social protection for hard pressed working class families we are saddled with a social development minister in the Stormont Executive whose opinions accord well with the right wing government across the pond and who is also regarded by many as a hardened religious sectarian. This little man with the big drum is also proving to be the most active of the generally passive Stormont ministers.

It should be said at the outset that he took on the ministerial portfolio at a very awkward juncture when the Tory austerity plans where already in an advanced state. The SDLP of course vacated the crucial social development portfolio as soon as they caught sight of the content of the welfare reform bill and Sinn Fein screamed PASS to the chance to take over the department from the SDLP following the May 2011 assembly elections. Why Sinn Fein chose to take on the department of arts and culture, the one with the smallest budget and largely symbolic importance rather than one of the key economic departments stands as an interesting question without of course an answer.

Nelson McCausland is known for being an ardent Unionist, a formidable Orangeman and monarchist, a ‘pro-life’ evangelical Christian who is also a Creationist and of course a great enthusiast for something called the Ulster-Scots culture. Indeed it can be persuasively argued that he more than any other individual is responsible for the ideological mishmash called Ulster-Scots culture. When he was appointed to his previous ministerial post in 2009, in charge of dolling out money to the arts and science cliques, his primary mission was to raise Ulster-Scots heritage up a couple of intellectual notches to the status of ‘a traditional culture’ and therefore make it worthy of taxpayer cash. The small budget didn’t deter Nelson too much.

Before he captured the minister for arts and culture portfolio he was the director of a lobby organisation called the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council. Back in those days he had little or no money to promote Ulster Scots heritage as a rival to the Irish language and culture movement and so no one of any intellectual standing took him too seriously. It was only when he got his hands on the department cash card that the little man with the big drum had to be listened to by the typically anti heritage arts cliques.

For a brief moment Nelson attracted the attention of the middle brow Guardian newspaper, thus earning a wider notoriety and crossing swords with non-other than uber-scientist Richard Dawkins who declared that the minister was an unfit person to be in charge of science museums. This was after Nelson wrote to the Ulster Museum requiring that it display a range of Creationist inspired artefacts to offer the North’s naive children a legitimate alternative to the “unproved theory of evolution.”

It didn’t take much to put down poor Professor Dawkins, faced with the acuity of Ulster’s superior evangelical mind. “Dawkins is an arrogant and militant atheist who prides himself on his knowledge and reason. He loves to demean and disparage others but this time the mighty man came unstuck” declared Nelson on his personal blog.

Being anti-modern in evolutionary science has not stopped the little man with the big drum being a very successful politician, He is already into his second ministerial position and is easily the busiest minister. Some people think they know why he is so successful. The key to his lasting popularity they say is to be found in his very frequent sectarian public outbursts, something that goes down well in loyalist flag waving working class districts. Let’s run through just a few of his more recent efforts.

On the third of October the Belfast Telegraph ran a story -‘Fury after Nelson McCausland says there’s no need for more Derry housing funds.’ It emerged that the minister had refused a recent appeal by Derry City Councillors for additional funds for the Housing Executive to build more social housing in the city. The latest figures revealed that the number of families and single people on waiting lists had passed the 3,000 mark

Sinn Fein councillor Tony Hassan said ‘we get a letter back from the minister’s secretary and to me it was disgraceful.’ The SDLP councillor John Tierney called the statement of the minister ‘crazy’. And here’s a nice Nelson touch – ‘the minister’s letter also referred to Derry City Council in the address and throughout as City Council of Londonderry.’

On the 25 September he faced down an SDLP sponsored motion calling for a three month parliamentary suspension for supposedly breaching the ministerial code by failing to condemn illegal acts conducted by a royal black band parade as it swaggered outside St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in Belfast. The suspension motion attracted a lot of media attention and was voted down. And so the little man’s political stock went up within his own party. McCausland, more than most DUP politicians, gets a kick out of baiting both ‘republican’ and nationalist politicians. He runs his own blog just to keep the invective regular.

In mid-June we can pull out another two media stories, ably covered by the online newspaper the Detail. The story broke that Nelson McCausland had caused worry and anger among Housing Executive workers when he chose to provide fellow DUP assembly colleague Paula Bradley with the religious breakdown of staff employed in North Belfast in the most public way. The decision was strongly criticised by trade union officials who warned that publication of the religious designation of workers in specific localities might put them at risk.

Less than a week later a car belonging to a Housing Executive employee was destroyed after it was set on fire by masked youths as it was parked outside the agency’s district office in Newtownabbey. ‘The Detail understands that Housing Executive officials have been forced to review security measures at offices across Belfast as a result of the attack. In a series of questions to DSD ‘we asked Mr McCausland to explain why he decided to publish the figures against the advice of his own officials and despite staff concerns…We also asked DUP MLA Paula Bradley why she had originally asked for a religious breakdown of staff… she chose not to respond.’

Also in June McCausland was criticised for blocking plans to build 200 new houses for people deemed to be nationalists on the vacant site of the former Girdwood army base in North Belfast. ‘However the Detail can now reveal new evidence showing that the DUP minister held discussions with the Housing Executive to ensure that four loyalist areas in north Belfast were given preferential treatment to be included in a new housing building scheme despite having little or no sign of any significant homelessness.’ Nationalists make up most of the 1,300 people in homeless stress in North Belfast.

The Detail obtained evidence that emergency approval was used to ensure that the four estates were added three months after the three year building plan had been finalised by the Housing Executive. The change was all down to pressure from the DSD and was a clear breach of a 40 years old protocol that social housing should be allocated strictly on the basis of priority of need and not on the basis of political or religious affiliation. This incidentally dragged Sinn Fein into the mix as they had agreed to the decision at local level talks.

And here is one from this month, this time from Nelson’s personal blog. Under the heading Biased Broadcast Corporation he complains about a pro Sinn Fein bias at, of all places, BBC Northern Ireland . He thunders against a BBC documentary that he hasn’t even seen about the life of the youngest Lord Mayor of Belfast, who happens to be a member of Sinn Fein, councillor Niall O Donnghaile.

He notes ‘This is not the first BBC documentary on a Lord Mayor. There was also a documentary on Alex Maskey, who was Lord Mayor in 2002. In between there were eight other Lord Mayors and they were drawn from all the larger political parties, but the BBC has decided that the only party whose Lord Mayors merit a BBC documentary….There is an onus on the BBC to acknowledge that it was wrong to give preferential treatment to Sinn Fein, to determine how this happened, to ensure that it does not happen again and to take action to redress this balance.’ There is a lot of this type of thing on Nelson’s blog, most of it aimed at excoriating Sinn Fein, his partner in government.

So Nelson’s strong electoral success can be attributed to some degree to what appears to be his carefree sectarian mud-slinging that goes down well with his many loyalist followers. However this is not what I want to focus on so much, rather I want to show up his other prejudice, his right wing class prejudices that make him the emblematic leader of the main party of government at Stormont.

Nelson holds strong opinions on socio-economic matters but critics prefer to ignore them, all the more to encourage him to just get on with his ministerial post. If only Nelson would just do his job and not court publicity things would be fine say his newspaper critics. But Nelson is getting on with his job. In fact he has the two biggest policy initiatives of the Executive on his agenda, implementing the welfare reform bill and dismantling the Housing Executive.

We can pick up the thread of Nelson’s approach to welfare reform from his offering on the bedroom tax. The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) Cameron Watt recently called on Nelson to delay the implementation of the bedroom tax until the Universal Credit is actually ready to go. This would of course only mean a postponement of about six months, from April 2013 to October 2013.

According to NIFHA this is ‘necessary, realistic and fair.’ Nelson rejected the very meek proposal outright saying that ‘I intend to increase funding available for discretionary housing payments to be made to all social housing tenants.’ In other words if any of the 34,000 tenants experience problems with rent they might be able to get a discretionary payment to help them out. Housing officers are to be offered a new career path into becoming poor law guardians.

The public line of the Stormont Executive is that it is being blackmailed by the Con-Dem government into progressing the welfare reform bill. If it was down to them it would not happen but if they put obstacles in its way they would face financial penalties

Yet in his speech to the NIFHA conference Nelson says “Turning now to events at a UK level, everyone in the room will be aware of the welfare reform agenda which is progressing. We know that its implementation is unavoidable. I think most of us will agree that the key principles behind this legislation are positive and we should recognise the real positives and opportunities that can be achieved as a result of some of these reforms.”

The principle that Nelson likes most is the one that says a welfare system should promote personal and social responsibility. In fact Nelson being a keen evangelical is happy to edge the State out of welfare provision and get the churches in. His department has already licensed a couple of schemes to that end.

We find an article on his blog of 25 November 2012 called signposts for funding churches “The Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, believes that there is a very critical role to be played by the faith sector in developing strategic partnerships with Government to help deliver practical approaches to tackling poverty. For this reason, the Minister funds the Faith Forum for Social Development …. Minister McCausland wants all faith-based groups to become engaged with the Department whether it is on local Neighbourhood Renewal Partnerships, benefit uptake or helping ensure the connections exist between vulnerable citizens and agencies such as the Social Security Agency or the Housing Executive. There is no cost to them and only benefits to be gained by those most in need.

Nelson’s DSD operates something called the Voluntary and Community Unit which doles out millions to agencies like the Law Centre, Citizens Advice Bureau and Northern Ireland Council For Voluntary Action. It also funds the Regional Infrastructure Programme which has an annual budget of 3 million to fund community groups. Some scope then for Nelson to put his own brand of welfare policy into operation.

The day Nelson became Social Development minister in May 2012 was the day the death knell sounded for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and of socialised housing. Nelson has chosen to make social housing his battlefront. We already mentioned the clash over the abandoned Girdwood Barracks, the emails seeking knowledge of the religious makeup of the Belfast offices in February 2012 and the publication of Catholic numbers working in Newtownabbey.

There has also been his row with the senior management over a £7 million repair contract with a company situated in East Belfast, Red Sky. The contract was terminated in July 2011 following accusations that the company had engaged in a practice of overcharging. Huge political pressure was piled on the NIHE to overturn the termination of the contract

Three days into his post Nelson met with the NIHE chairman Brian Rowntree to ask that the decision be suspended for six months. The investigative magazine the Detail gained access to the emails. The NIHE chairman sent one to the Department for Social Development (DSD) Permanent Secretary Will Haire on July1 saying he had ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ over the pressure being applied by the DSD over the contract and asked that the minister take a step back. The DSD permanent secretary emailed back saying ‘I believe that you should withdraw the remarks you made.’ Four days later Mr Rowntree resigned as Chairman citing personal reasons.

Nelson knows a few things about the NIHE that are not to his liking. He knows that it came into being to end the allocation of social housing on the basis of religious affiliation and he knows it always has had a catholic majority in its staff. But putting the sectarian boot into the NIHE is not his only motivation. He does not like its social democratic ethos. He is in fact busy drawing up plans to have it broken up and privatised.

It is likely that the 90,000 tenants will be transferred to private Housing Association where rents are higher. A good number of redundancies will follow out of the 2,800 staff. For those who think he will face opposition from Sinn Fein – think again. In July Stormont announced that it had set itself a target of transferring 2,000 homes to Housing Associations and a number of British based Housing Associations are said to be taking soundings. The public justification for the change is stated in the consultation documents, which is the need to raise a billion pounds for repair work. The NIHE is not able to raise loans from private banks but Housing Associations can do so.

What is motivating the politicians in the Stormont Executive to break up and privatise the NIHE? Some might think it is pure sectarianism. But if it is, what about Sinn Fein? Do they also want a sectarian carve up? Is it simply a relentless falling into line to what is happening to social policy in Britain, with the varied the attacks on the social housing sector? Is it the Stormont Executive looking for one way to cut its own costs in this time of austerity? Or is it that nobody wants to rock the Stormont boat too much in case it sinks and so Nelson must be left to pursue his own private political agenda with a minimum of opposition? Maybe all the above motivations are factors? What do you think?

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.

Belfast Trade Unions demonstrate against Austerity

Trade Unionists march against Austerity

As part of the trade union campaign against austerity across the UK the trade union movement in the North of Ireland organised a demonstration in Belfast to coincide with those in London and Glasgow.  It is difficult to estimate the size of the demonstration which appeared significant as it snaked its way through Belfast’s city centre but didn’t look impressive as it assembled and looked even less so at the final rally.  The latter however is a feature of trade union demonstrations. The notion that the purpose of a rally at the end is to explain what to do next and get everyone involved is as alien to most people at these things as little green men from Mars.  What happens next always depends on the decisions of the union leaders.  It is not for deciding by those involved.

Supporters of the United Left Alliance in the North correctly made this the subject of their leaflet and put forward the key task of the demonstration as one of creating a real permanent campaign against austerity:

“Last November saw 40,000 mobilised in Belfast in a general public sector strike  – but it was a one-off event and everyone went home again.  No further action was taken, there was no continuing campaign and the next public sector strike was much less successful.

Everyone is no less opposed to austerity and the Tories and Labour plans show the issue isn’t going away.

At the end of this demonstration we must make sure we don’t go away either.  To ensure that this doesn’t happen we need to come together to create an on-going cross-union permanent campaign that will oppose austerity.  Not one that pops up every six months but one that continues every week to campaign inside the trade unions, inside workplaces and inside communities to unite them all in a way that each of them cannot do by themselves.”

I overheard one of the trade union leaders responsible for the demonstration express her delight at the size of the turnout.  The demonstration was successful in so far as it confirmed that a basis exists for starting to build a wider and potentially successful campaign but one should not underestimate the obstacles.

The first is that the demonstration was no more than a few thousand at the very, very most.  It was dwarfed by the very, very large sectarian demonstration three weeks before, which commemorated the signing of the Ulster Covenant that led to partition.  This was celebrated by the participation of dozens of ‘kick the pope’ flute bands.  A prominent organiser of it was Nelson McCausland of the Democratic Unionist Party who has led the introduction of the Welfare Reform Bill in the Stormont Assembly, which imposes in Northern Ireland the cuts decided by the Tory Government in London.   It is ironic that many of the marchers in the Ulster Covenant commemoration will be shafted by these cuts.

The welfare changes introduce the biggest assault on entitlement in decades and were also supported by Sinn Fein.  The latter bring their own ironic aspect to its passage.  The back bone of Sinn Fein’s political machine is a network of advice centres at which Sinn Fein activists help those on welfare get as much as they can.  It is what they called ‘screwing the system’ when they first started doing it.  Now of course Sinn Fein has joined the system and the only people getting screwed are their constituents.  The first many of them will know about the changes will be when their benefits get cut.   They will then run to the advice centres where Sinn Fein will tell them ‘sorry but these are the new rules’.  What they won’t tell them is that Sinn Fein voted for them and had the power to stop them but didn’t.  While welfare is cut along with public sector pay Martin McGuinness will continue to complain that the British won’t let Sinn Fein and the DUP cut corporation tax.  Sinn Fein posturing has been particularly vacuous – they have said they ‘might’ make an issue of monthly payments of benefits and demand that they are paid fortnightly instead.

The third obstacle is reflected by the fact that so many walked away from the demonstration with no demand to those on the platform that they provide them with a strategy promising success.  The demonstrators were activists in their various trade unions and community groups but there is no understanding of the need for wider organisation.  They were there to protest and no more.

A protest is an expression of disapproval, summed up in the slogan ‘not in my name’.  It is not an alternative and it ultimately receives the following answer by the Government and State – ‘yeah, so what?’  Sinn Fein and the DUP live and breathe as defenders of their respective community against the other even as together they fillet both.  The limits of the trade union leaders’ challenge can be seen in the statement released before the demonstration:

“The devolved administrations must build a robust joint defence of the people who elected them.  Let this rally today send a message to our MLAs and our MPs from all political parties that we the people are firmly opposed to the failed policy of austerity which destroys lives and futures.”

An appeal to the political parties at Stormont and to Stormont itself is not a strategy.  It amounts to an appeal to the enemy.  The financial crisis exploded because of a property boom and the well-reported antics of the Developers’ Unionist Party and hidden ‘let’s get rich’ antics of the leaders of the Provisional Movement mean these people ae personally tied up with the system that is demanding the cuts.

The political sectarianism of the left means that it too is not an alternative.  It is unable to unite its tiny forces in an attempt to make a difference, although this is not the biggest problem.  The Left’s inability to organise in an open and democratic way means it cannot include the wider forces needed to create a real movement.  Were it to attempt to do so the Left group concerned would no longer retain control.  Since their absolute need for control is not just a rather unfortunate sectarian aberration in their practice but a foundation in principle of their existence- they all believe that they are the sole essential nucleus of the mass working class party of the future because of their particular approach to socialist politics -they are both practically and in theory sectarian.

The leaflet of the supporters of the United Left Alliance correctly put forward the next step – creation of a permanent campaign that is organised across unions by rank and file members, in workplaces and in communities and their community campaigns.  This is not just the next step in a campaign against austerity.  Just as socialism is the creation of working people themselves so is the resistance to capitalism, one of the means by which the capitalist system will be superseded by the power of a new ruling class, made up for the first  time by the vast majority of society.