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.


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.


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.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal? Part 2

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

By Belfast Plebian

Episode two commenced after the Assembly was recalled for a one-day public debate on the developing scandal on July 8th.Once more it was down to Jim Allister to make most of the running, alleging that Red Sky had carried out work on the homes and offices of DUP members and that they even had the gall to charge some of the costs to the Assembly.  He tried to arrange for a motion calling for McCausland’s to be put up for vote but was rebuffed by Sinn Fein who wanted a less severe motion to be voted on.

It was also alleged that Nelson McCausland had an improper relationship with Turkington Holdings, a Portadown based firm that specialises in windows, doors and conservatory installations. The allegation was that he had agreed to delay the ongoing work by other rival firms with a view to favouring Turkington on the grounds of cost.  Before making his suspension order it was alleged that he met with Turkington, the chair of witch is a DUP member. But the heart of the second episode came down to final the motion and vote.

The motion asked that Mr McCausland step aside while the inquiry into the matter by the DSD committee was being carried out.  It also noted that the Minister may have purposely misled both the Assembly and the committee. The motion drawn up by Sinn Fein was supported by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Allaince  plus the Greens and the new Unionist Party NI21. The motion collapsed even though 54 members voted for it and 32 voted against. This outcome was possible due to a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern. It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion or law they feel is discriminatory, the DUP with 38 MLAs is the only party that can do this without votes from others.   

The reaction to the petition of concern in the press was interesting because for the first time there was a feeling of genuine alarm about the Stormont settlement that had been strongly endorsed from day one of the ‘peace process’. The political analysis in ‘The Irish News’ was pessimistic; the headline banner on the day after the DUP move to block the censure motion read ‘It was a bad day for democracy.

The writer feared that the clause that was supposed to prevent sectarian majority rule was now being used to further it: ‘ Power sharing may be the concept the devolved institutions are built on but it seems power ultimately resides with the party that can consistently muster 30 signatures and lodge a petition of concern whenever it is unhappy with a particular assembly motion. The upshot is therefore not democracy but an inverted form of majoritarianism. It’s a system that leaves the majority party in a position where it can overrule the rest of the assembly even when outnumbered two-to-one.’

‘The Irish News’ editorial was a little less stark but still pessimistic, the final paragraph read ‘Many observers will have concluded that standards at Stormont have declined to a stage where basic democratic values have been largely abandoned in the interests of expediency. There will be little public confidence that the truth over Red Sky will ever be established property but it is the wider reputation of our key intuitions that is increasingly under the spotlight.’    

As for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, their next day front page stated; ‘This was a bad day for democracy’ the three sub headings were ‘debate on Red Sky scandal ends with no action’, ‘parties in the pockets of big business-claim’and ‘Assembly rules misused by DUP to stifle debate.’ The editorial was less pessimistic making the argument that the petition of concern could be fixed: ‘Although the motion gained cross-party and cross-community support in the Assembly it was defeated by a petition of concern, a piece of political trickery which is meant to stop minorities being ridden roughshod over, which is increasingly is used by all parties if they find themselves in trouble. It is clear that thisparticular manoeuvre will have to be rethought as it is now being misused.’

The job of expressing the fears and frustrations of the small group of reformers who had hoped for a gradual transformation out of a sectarian conflict was left to Robin Wilson the one time editor of Fortnight Magazine ; ‘The Red Sky  episode is a flashing red light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland. It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption, which, if notaddressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.’

At least Robin Wilson acknowledged in his article that the outrageous behaviour had a lot more to do with sectarian partisanship than with corruption, the last paragraph of his article stated: ‘the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order. The new one looks dispiritingly similar.’  

We should not pass by the media reaction without mentioning one other perspective on the Red Sky affair; three days after the Stormont travesty the Belfast Telegraph carried an analysis by trade union socialist Eamonn McCann, presumably to get an alternative viewpoint. The banner of his article was ‘Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation.’

Mr McCann stated the proposition he was out to prove in his opening paragraph ‘None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn’t been privatised. No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland,s office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer  phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine week summer holiday

Little thought is required to refute Mr McCann’s proposition, having public control over a central Housing Authority is a good thing provided at least one condition is fulfilled, namely that those in control are socialists.  If those in charge are sectarians, racists or state capitalists then if anything it is a worse arrangement than having it in many private hands.  Unfortunately those taking charge in this case are not socialists and may even be sectarian.

Comment and Explanation

We can certainly say that the Red Sky scandal represents something more than a scandal and something less than a political crisis. It is a mini crisis of the peace process, something that is hard to disguise. The first instinct of all of those in thrall to the peace process was to disguise it as a corruption scandal, a case of one party, the DUP seeking to do financial favours for the owners of a couple of small firms that happen to back the party.  The pro-agreement media was therefore content to run behind Jim Allister for he seemed to have enough inside information to make the corruption charge stick. The sectarian substance was reduced to a secondary quality

What might have come out of this allegation was a routine resignation of a wayward politician in an otherwise stable Executive. One small problem was that another DUP minister would have replaced the sacked one and we would have merely carried on from the point we had left i.e. the programme of dismantling the Housing Executive. Then the realisation dawned on some people that the minister had no intention of resigning because his party had no intention of letting little things like democratic norms get in the way of staying in charge of the big spending departments of government. The DUP standpoint was No Surrender to our critics!

The pro-agreement media began to wonder if the current political arrangements might make it impossible to address wrongdoing not only by the odd maniacal politician but entire maniacal political parties. It was kind of expected that an exposed politico would be cut loose by his own party. One step behind the fear of unaccountable financial corruption lurks of course the longer and deeper fear of sectarian competition over the spoils of government

Pro-agreement nationalist political opinion now realised that the safeguards they had long thought they had secured against bad government were not as sound as they had believed. They now had to face up to the fact that it is an anti-power sharing sectarian party they have to deal with in government and not some reformed unionist party. On the other side, the pro-agreement unionists had to confront the fact that you only need 30 votes to carry on like the DUP does when in government and Sinn Fein have 29 votes and destined to get past the magic number in the near future.

Pro-agreement unionists, who are in fact a minority within unionism, have zero confidence in Sinn Fein not doing the same thing as the DUP. Sinn Fein have been less strident about the scandal over procurement contracts than others expected; the party refused to accept an amendment to their own weak motion of censure as phrased by Jim Allistar calling for the resignation of McCausland.  Knowing what one knows about the building trade in nationalist political constituencies it is easy to conclude that they would not be too keen on a thorough going inspection and clean up themselves. They are up for an inquiry all right so all as it is confined to Red Sky.

We predict the two big political parties will continue on much as before, jockeying for position and biting into sectarian patronage and running down the public purse to no good end. The Orange Order, to give one example, is now subsidised like it wasn’t in the halcyon days of one party Orange rule; it receives money for its decorous band uniforms, to buy musical instruments, to pay for music lessons and there are more bands than ever. The local government even funds the bonfires, which used to be stuck up by nothing-to-do summer youths – now they are professional affairs put together by men using heavy machinery,  The mural painting of walls is also funded.

The Orange Order is renovating itself and building up a heritage with European Peace money to the tune of £7 million.  As for the paymaster of sectarianism in London, the real government has so far kept shtum and if things come to a breakdown they will invite in a prominent American to recommend some institutional changes probably along the line suggestion by the Belfast Telegraph i.e. make it harder for the main political parties to draw on a petition of concern to block a cross community majority vote. 

There is a mini crisis of confidence facing many of those well-educated professionals currently staffing the Public Sector. These people like to think of themselves as untouched by low-down sectarian squabbles. The Spotlight programme threw up a number of side issues that point in this direction.

It was pointed out in the programme that the first people to come under pressure was not the Housing Executive Chairman but the housing inspectors who had refused to give a pass to Red Sky’s shoddy work . The group development manager of Red Sky, one Pauline Gazzard, felt confident enough to write a letter to a senior Housing Executive manager with the expectation that the inspectors’ reports against Red Sky, put together by a conscientious district officer Gary Ballentine, an elder in the Presbyterian church, would be brushed aside: ‘It is also considered necessary to re-iterate our deep concern in relation to certain personalities who remain working in the West Belfast District Office and we trust appropriate actions will be taken to address this in the near future.’

The letter is address to a senior Housing Executive manager but was never seen by the Board or the Chairman when they were investigating the matter; the three West Belfast inspectors were in fact removed and sent elsewhere. What is abundantly clear is that senior managers at the Housing Executive were depriving the Board and the chairman of very relevant information.

The report that the chairman commissioned and delivered in 2011 discovered that 80% of the charging made by Red Sky was questionable. The upshot was that 8 managers were disciplined and some others retired early for allowing the overcharging to go on. The question to be pondered – were they in receipt of bribes or were they making a calculation that it would not be wise to rock the sectarian boat

If we next move on to the police, they have been asked three times to investigate matters pertaining to Red Sky.  Once in 2006 when several lesser Housing Executive workers were found to be taking gifts from Red Sky, no charges were preferred then.  The second time when Chairman Rowntree provided them with the evidence of criminal wrong doing in 2011, the evidence that was used to terminate the £7 million annual contract, and again the police sat on their hands.  Finally the Spotlight team asked the police were they thinking of opening up a new investigation; they replied not without evidence.

But if there was no evidence how come the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly says that ‘ a sample of 20 kitchen replacement schemes (out of a total of 242 schemes undertaken to date) found overpayments of £1.3 million out of a total cost for all schemes examined of £6.2 million. The potential total contractor overpayment since 2008 is estimated at around £18 million’

And there was other evidence; it came from Pauline Gazzard who no longer works for Red Sky/Totalis. When the administrator took over the running of Red Sky she wrote a 13-page letter to BDO explaining that she knew for a fact that the company she formerly worked for had bribed at least three procurement officers from the Housing Executive. The Spotlight reporter said ‘We asked the police ifthey had the letter now would they act on it now-they refused to comment.’

The Spotlight reporter then asked the Housing Executive Chairman, who had been keen to have the police involved, about the seeming lethargy of the police investigation and his reply was ‘I am absolutely gobsmacked’.   Then we have the administrators at BDO; Pauline Gazzard told Spotlight that she was surprised BDO showed no interest in her letter or her allegations. Not only that, BDO did not pass the information she gave them on to the Board of the Housing Executive or the police. When asked about the matter BDO claimed client confidentially meant they could not comment.

Here’s the rub. Did one small building firm have so much sway, over senior Housing Executive managers, over the police, over accountants and insolvency professionals, over politicians and then over the Head of the Government because of its economic weight, after all it was hardly BP or Shell Oil or is there another explanation?

The other explanation is a bit crude and may even sound offensive to some ears. The firm’s managers knew how to play the sectarian playbook to make other people quake a little.  The firm was quick to blame the Catholic residents for making false complaints, and then they said the inspectors were bigots even though this was patently untrue.  They then attacked the chairman of the Housing Executive indicating he was a dodgy nationalist, then they encouraged their work force to picket the offices of the Housing Executive, carrying banners with slogans like the Housing Executive is anti-Protestant, and finally they told the DUP that the firm had done no wrong and was being starved of work contracts because it was believed to be Protestant.

All those who stepped aside for Red Sky did so because they were conscious of the sectarian clouds that sit low and heavy over society. The politics is sectarian because the society is sectarian. What is more the sectarian cloud cover is thickening rather than dispersing due to the fact that sectarian politicians are taking over the basic departments of government. As for those working under the new dispensation, things are about to get a bit more complicated and choking.

In the more recent past, if you were a public sector professional you only had to contend with a subdued sectarianism, the police and the Northern Office of course was something different, now it is back and it is naked and outspoken.  What is even more disconcerting, the really green nationalists want you to bend in their direction too, overlook this misdemeanour, override a professional service protocol when instructed to do so by somebody with political connections.  How the hell do you bend in two sectarian directions at once?  Do you decide to bend with the Orange 60 per cent of the time and then bend with the Green the other 40 per cent?

The relationship between the relatively privileged professional classes who number a fair number and the sectarian society is about to get a bit more fraught. We can see clear evidence of this emerging from this case.  McCausland decided to wage a vendetta against the Chairman of the Housing Executive, so he asked for some evidence to get at his target.  Two senior DSD civil servants accompanied him to the infamous meeting with the Red Sky management at Stormont; the minutes of that meeting read like a party political conspiracy.  Is this what civil servants should be doing?

The DSD permanent secretary is busy trying to get Brian Rowntree removed from his other public service job with the civil service commissioners’ according to Spotlight he got his staff to trawl through thousands of e-mails hoping to find incriminating evidence against Rowntree.  What a truly poisonous atmosphere.

If a government department supervised by a political Orangeman hounds a career civil servant out of his post, will a department run by a Nationalist respond in kind, if you take out one of ours we will take out one of yours?  Legal threats are flying about left, right and centre.  No wonder the Spotlight programme began by saying that many people ‘we spoke to were scared to speak on the record.’ Most of these people were of the professional class. Welcome to the future sectarian society!  Mandy McAuley the girl that kicked the hornet’s nest.

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?

handshake and reconciliation

The handshake between the British Queen and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness is something significant even though most people in the North of Ireland have shrugged their shoulders and have only at the last minute really taken it under their notice because of the hype from the media.  Both the British State and Sinn Fein wanted it to happen for their own reasons and were more than happy that it got the media blitz that it did.

Every commentator aware of the history has remarked on the sea-change that has taken place at this diamond jubilee visit compared to that during the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977.  At that time republicans demonstrated and rioted against her visit while today the hand of friendship has been extended.  However beneath this difference the purpose of the visit has been exactly the same on both occasions although much more successful on this one.

The veteran journalist Peter Taylor has an item on the BBC news recalling his reporting on the visit for ITV in 1977 and the authorities in that station pulling his report ten minutes before it was due to be broadcast because it exposed the reaction to the visit.  The British government was engaged in a huge propaganda effort to treat the political conflict as simply one of criminality arising from sectarian communal conflict over which the State was an impartial enforcer of peace and order.  The purpose of the Queen’s visit, Taylor says, was to present her as a “great healer of the division between the two communities”.  His report of opposition to the visit exposed this as nonsense.

It did not, and does not today, matter that everyone knew it was nonsense.  The point was to set a public agenda behind which the real strategy of repression and political intrigue could be realised.  This strategy was ultimately successful, although it took over two decades to bear fruit through the ‘peace process’, in the cause of which almost anything is justified.

Today the visit of the Queen and Sinn Fein’s very public welcome is designed to prove the aims of the 1977 visit have now been achieved.  Both she and Martin McGuinness are the bearers of reconciliation and their handshake the equivalent of signing off on an agreement that the conflict that existed in 1977 is never going to return.  The Queen can visit Ireland and there is no reason in the world to object to her presence or protest at the assertion of imperialist rule that these visits represent.

Such claims are acceptable because such acceptance betokens reconciliation.  Of course this is presented as reconciliation of a divided community, of Protestant and Catholic, and who could oppose this?  Certainly not socialists for whom the unity of Protestant and Catholic workers is a fundamental objective and which cannot happen without reconciliation.  But the reconciliation on display yesterday was not between Protestants and Catholics but between the high representatives of their current political leaderships: the Queen as head of State of the imperial power and Martin McGuinness as the highest ranking nationalist minister in a sectarian administration of this imperial rule.  What is involved is not erasing of the division but acceptance of it and promise of continuation in perpetuity.  What has been reconciled is Sinn Fein with British rule.

What events this week have shown is that far from ending sectarianism this reconciliation promises its continuation.  For this week the rotten sectarian heart of the new political arrangements in the North has been shamelessly exposed.

Conor Murphy, the recent Sinn Fein Minister for the Department for Regional Development (DRD), was found by a Fair Employment Tribunal to have engaged in unlawful religious discrimination in appointing a Catholic to Chairman of Northern Ireland Water in a case taken by one of the Protestant applicants.

The Tribunal’s judgement was scathing of Murphy.  Both the successful Catholic candidate and Murphy claimed not to have met each other before the appointment and Murphy was “quite firm” in the view he had not met the applicant.  Murphy however had previously appointed him to two public bodies while claiming not to know where he lived, although he was from Murphy’s constituency and had also been Chairman of the local Health and Social Services Trust.   The tribunal nevertheless asserted that it “is satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the Minister did have contact with Sean Hogan, and met him when he was Chairman of the Health Trust in Newry, and that they knew one another.  The Tribunal finds that both Sean Hogan’s and the Minister’s evidence in these respects lacks credibility.”

The Tribunal also found that “for a four year period between 2007-2011, when the Minister was in charge of DRD, there was a significant disparity between the success rates of Protestant applicants and Catholic applicants within DRD, and that a Catholic applicant was at least twice as likely to be appointed than a Protestant applicant.  Statistics for other Government Departments show a ratio at or close to 1:1.  The Tribunal is satisfied that there was a material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background within DRD.  The Tribunal is concerned that Dr McKibbin, as Permanent Secretary within DRD at the material time, and currently Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, was not more aware of the situation.”

Even in the dark days of Unionist discrimination during the previous Stormont regime pre-1972 I can recall no case of a Minister and senior civil servant being implicated through exposure of such high profile discrimination.  It was actions like these that led to the civil rights movement and the fall of the old Stormont.  Yet there have been no words of criticism from the rest of Sinn Fein and in fact two Sinn Fein Ministerial colleagues of Murphy’s were consulted by him in making the appointment.  Murphy has continued to deny his guilt although it is impossible to believe that the evidence and judgement of the Tribunal would not be accepted by Sinn Fein if it involved Unionist discrimination against Catholics.

Sinn Fein’s claims to oppose sectarianism are badly damaged and their hypocrisy exposed.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  The new Stormont promises sectarian discrimination just like the old one except that both sides will now be at it. The silence of the representatives of Unionism is deafening.  They knew that this is what they were agreeing to by accepting Sinn Fein in office because that is what being ‘in government’ is all about.  Small and relatively powerless local administrations do nothing but administer bureaucracy and distribute the spoils of office.  By their silence it is quite clear that Unionists will view the actions of Sinn Fein as licence to do the same.  The benefit to Catholics of Sinn Fein discrimination will be licence for Unionism to discriminate against them.

Sectarianism is to be more secure because everyone will be at it except of course that the whole point of discrimination is to arrive at an unfair and unbalanced outcome.  Equality of discrimination makes no sense at all and will be proved in the attempt to achieve it.  It is not an inherently stable proposition.  However the attempt to achieve it means that if there is to be real opposition to sectarianism and discrimination the unity of the working class becomes a more obvious need because both stand immediately to benefit.  Let Sinn Fein and the British State become reconciled to the current arrangements; the true cause of reconciliation belongs to those opposed to religious discrimination. By becoming ‘friends’ it must be made clear to working people of both religions that the Queen and the Minister are both on the other side.