Sectarianism in the North of Ireland and Republicanism

the-triumpth-of-deathThe dysfunctional nature of the Stormont regime is widely acknowledged.  The two leading parties exclude the others in decision making while being unable to make decisions themselves; except not to expose each other’s most sectarian actions – employment discrimination by Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy and moves to sectarianise housing by the DUP’s Nelson McCausland.

Other parts of the settlement are also exposed. The PSNI have lost much credibility with their facilitation of illegal loyalist flag protests while the Parades Commission, set up to solve the parades issue, is now part of the problem.  It is ignored even by the police, as during the flags protests, or has its determinations on how parades are to behave brazenly flouted by loyalist marchers, who the Commission then allows to parade again, with the same results.

Meanwhile spokesmen for the DUP partners of Sinn Fein in government blame the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast for being physically assaulted by loyalists while visiting a park in a unionist area (DUP leaders were not attacked in the nationalist park earlier in the day) and a DUP member of the Stormont Assembly tweets her support for the killing of Sinn Fein leaders.

The DUP decision, announced by the First Minister from a holiday in Florida which appeared to last forever, that there will be no ‘peace centre’ at the site of the prison where the IRA hunger strikers died exposes the weakness of Sinn Fein.  A settlement that makes any change to the status quo dependent on the defenders of that status quo has been exposed once again.

In this situation it is not one religious group that primarily loses out, although the evidence in the first post shows that disadvantage remains unequal, but the lowest section of each working class that suffers most.  The old socialist maxim that sectarianism hits workers most, and the poorest at that, is demonstrated in the ways the new sharing of sectarianism works, or rather how it operates in its own dysfunctional manner.

The exposure that a homeless man in East Belfast on the housing waiting list with a points total of 330 (indicating level of need) was passed over in favour of a person with only 26 points caused a minor scandal (all scandals in the North are minor).  This flagrant breach of ‘rights’ was carried out by a housing association whose member includes a former Sinn Fein councillor.  Two of his nieces were allocated housing by the association, which is why, when the case appeared in court, the judge referred to nepotism.

A friend of mine has also reminded me that while he is recommended to go for a job interview with Shorts in East Belfast the social security staff tell him they won’t bother sending him for an interview in West Belfast, where he lives, because a job there is for ‘Shinners’.

In many Protestant areas the indulgence of loyalist paramilitaries by the state has made them more attractive to young Protestants who then end up with a career in violent sectarianism as opposed to a career on the dole or in part time and poorly paid employment.  These paramilitaries then feed off the local population in a wholly parasitic fashion – extorting protection money from small businesses; selling drugs and then claiming to be protectors against dealers; engaging in general criminality then ‘dealing’ with (other) criminals; and finally parading the reactionary politics of the local population while hiding their criminality behind their politics.  This reactionary politics in working class areas acts as another barrier to Protestant workers being able to escape the loyalist gangsters.

The situation is therefore complicated.  A political settlement exists that has the support of the State and Sinn Fein but which is more and more clearly just a stepping stone for unionism to return to unrestricted unionist rule.  At the moment this is simply not possible.  The reversal of the previous struggle against unionist and British misrule does not mean that history has gone backwards.

At the same time the sectarian demands of loyalism set the agenda.  Once more nationalist commentators call for loyalists to be ‘brought in from the cold’ despite their being treated as legitimate political representatives and special slush funds being created for their benefit.  It is vainly hoped that there is just one more Orange parade that is causing trouble and that if only it is sorted the other 3,000 odd will never cause a problem.

As this article is written the loyalists that everyone is invited to save from their supposed marginalisation by the peace process has, through a nomme de guerre, threatened everyone connected with three Catholic schools in North Belfast with ‘military action’.  In a throwback to sectarian assaults on Catholic primary school children in Ardoyne, primary school children are threatened because if loyalists can’t parade Catholics can’t go to school.

With such a mass of contradictions it appears that the whole edifice must crumble, and it is indeed crumbling.  But this could take some time – a decay that brings mutual ruination presided over by the British State but with no progressive force or alternative emerging.

In his eye-witness report of the republican anti-internment march Belfast Plebeian speculates on the revival of republicanism.  Not the new partitionism of Sinn Fein but a genuine movement committed to a united Ireland.  This anti-internment demonstration and relatively small electoral victories demonstrates that the movement has a small base of support.  But whether it has a progressive and realistic alternative is a different matter.

The support of a marginalised section of the Catholic population is one thing.  A programme that might promise an alternative to this population must go beyond gaining support from it to advancing solutions to wider society.  It is self-evident that there is no solution at the local level nor at the level of the Northern State and not, as recent events have so clearly shown, at the level of the island.

Republicans have to answer the question how they can unite the Irish people in order to unite the country.  Poor Catholics in Belfast would benefit from an ending of partition but workers in Dublin might want some alternative to the problems brought about by a capitalist economic crisis and political domination by a state in cahoots with imperialism – right now obviously subordinated by the Troika of European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.

The challenges to the creation of this alternative even in the North are more complicated than those faced by the movement created in the 1960s.  While Catholic disadvantage persists the inclusion, even at a secondary level, of Catholic parties in the political administration, means, as has been argued, that it is not simply a matter of discrimination but of sectarian competition.  That Catholics lose out more than Protestants means the simple equation of their respective position and of the political expressions of the two sectarian groups is wrong.  That it is the workers and poorest of both that pay most does not mean that the sectarian division, and the political issues around it, can be ignored or treated as something without need of a particular political intervention that gives specific answers.

Despite their small base of support the republicans are not well placed to face up to and address these difficulties.

Firstly, and most obviously, but most importantly, this movement is confined to the Catholic population.  A strategy of seeking unity across the sectarian division is rendered particularly difficult.  These forces are weak among the rest of the Irish working class in the southern state so the mobilisation of the latter in a political alternative that can practically demonstrate to Protestant, and to other workers, the possibilities of their programme is itself presented with formidable obstacles.

All this assumes in the first place that these republicans, who are divided into a number of groups, regard the political contradictions of the peace process as the primary challenge and political task that they face.  Many in this movement have not broken from the militarism that so demonstratively failed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

The re-creation of a military campaign even approaching that of the Provisionals at its height in 1972, when the Official IRA also participated (‘ceasefire’ or not), is simply not going to happen.  This campaign fed off an elemental upsurge, British repression and extreme loyalist reaction.  The British learnt lessons in their counter-insurgency, which is one reason they won, although given the relative military resources they couldn’t really lose.

Some republican attempts to recreate a crisis, including British repression and loyalist reaction, through armed action (in the hope of sparking the third element of Catholic upsurge) might produce two out of three.  It is and will therefore be a reactionary project.

Some republicans clearly recognise this but no coherent, comprehensive or convincing critique of their previous military strategy has come from this movement.  Without this the option will remain open to large sections of it and with such an option failure is guaranteed.  Marxists do not favour premature armed action by revolutionary socialist forces never mind the action of republicans with no credible socialist credentials.

The character of the armed struggle was of an armed revolt by a minority of an oppressed Catholic population that was solely Catholic because the sectarian character of the State made it so. Nevertheless this situation meat that a premature armed campaign with no prospect of military victory was wide open and susceptible to political degeneration, which is what happened.  From mass gun battles lasting hours against the British army the armed struggle moved to blowing things up, like shops, bus depots, restaurants and hotels etc. without any rationale for doing so.

It meant the pursuit of soft targets and a wider and wider definition of ‘legitimate targets’; all to avoid the hard fact that the IRA could no longer engage the British Army, the army of occupation, in a serious guerrilla struggle.  The failure of the armed struggle and the impossibility of it succeeding against the military power of Britain were denied in word while accepted in deed.

This meant that the sectarian weakness of the republican resistance, its wholly Catholic character, was impressed on it through actions that more and more conflicted with its declared non-sectarian objectives.  Bombings were targeted at groups of Protestants seemingly without any regard to their political impact as if some spurious military logic was of primary importance.

So, for example, the IRA complained that the British caused unnecessary civilian casualties by not acting on bomb warnings.  The fact that the British had devised a way of discrediting republicans through exploiting one weakness of their bombing tactic did not prevent the IRA walking into this trap again and again for which many civilians paid the price.  This blindness to the requirements of a political struggle betrayed the undeveloped nature of the movement; one that still characterises those that would continue armed action today.

So we can say that while the republican struggle involved a progressive objective, fought for by an oppressed section of the population, it involved elements of sectarian practice that conflicted with this objective.  This may be contrasted with the armed actions of loyalists whose programme and actions didn’t contradict one another. Their programme didn’t occasionally involve sectarian murder but was sectarian murder.

I have never checked, but if the argument by John Hume – that more Catholics died at the hands of the IRA than British and loyalists – was even close to being true it would demonstrate the hopelessly misguided nature of the republican armed struggle.  This lesson needs to be learnt or many Irish workers will not trust today’s republicans with political leadership.  It has been said many times by many people that it is the threat of renewed armed struggle that has been one of the strongest arguments used to support the peace process and the current political settlement.

Today’s republicans are therefore an expression of the contradictions of imperialist rule and, in so far as they understand this and oppose this rule, they understand something important.  However the fact that this movement is so old in historical terms, going back to the late 18th century shows two other things.

One, is that its historical task has not therefore been achieved and two, that history has developed more fundamental tasks than the creation of an independent nation state within which an Irish capitalist system can develop and grow.

The development of capitalism around the world and creation of a world working class means that political programmes that put forward new independent states as the fundamental and first step to wider and deeper liberation are now backward looking.

The latest expressions of republicanism are old in another sense.  It is nearly 20 years since the first IRA ceasefire and the definitive surrender of the republican programme.  It is 15 years since the leadership and majority of the membership accepted partition and the Good Friday Agreement.  Time enough for those opposed to both to develop a programme that has learnt the lessons of this defeat and begun to construct an alternative.  It is not encouraging that this has yet to be done.

Nationalism, Sectarianism and Democracy in the North of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.