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.

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.

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.

Why are the flag protests still going on?

Loyalists march in Belfast waving British Union flagsWhen I first posted on the flag controversy I argued that the issue was not one of identity or culture or any supposed rights attaching to either of these but one of intimidation; as clear as day from the moment protesters attempted to get into the City Hall as the vote was taken. In fact it was clearer even earlier when the two main Unionist parties put out leaflets in East Belfast in a transparent attempt to prepare for the ousting of the Alliance Party MP.  Unionists had already supported flying of the flag on designated days, and not every day, in Lisburn and presumably the protesters hadn’t then noticed any loss of identity or culture.

As the protests have continued their intimidatory character has become more obvious: from preventing people getting to hospital to attacks on political representatives to attacks on Catholic homes in the Short Strand area of East Belfast. As the violence has increased the number of arrests by the police has fallen. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has stated that it is not possible to arrest those flagrantly breaking the law which is, of course, an open incentive to continue to do so.

The numbers involved have been relatively small, the core rioters have been youths and the PSNI have pointed to individuals in the paramilitary UVF as being responsible for organising the rioting. The protests, even the ‘peaceful’ ones, have been characterised by sectarian displays.

The political organisation behind the protests, in so far as it exits, is composed of marginal, relatively unknown figures or individuals with little political credibility. Their call for a return to direct rule by the British State was seen as confirmation of their marginal status and further betrayed their sectarian objective and its lack of any democratic content.

While unionist politicians have attempted to rationalise and defend the motivations of the protesters these have been exploded by the actions of the protesters themselves. So they hold up the union flag demanding ‘Hands off our Flag’, with the ‘our’ underlined. In other words the union flag is a Protestant flag and is to be defended as a sectarian symbol.

Having originated in an opportunist attempt by unionist politicians to unseat the Alliance Party the issue was initially held up as one of the right to fly the union flag 365 days a year. The acceptance by republicans that instead it could fly on the Queen’s birthdays (she has two) or the Earl of Wessex birthday etc. etc. is held up as a stunning denial of Protestant cultural rights and identity. As if understanding the absurdity of this, spokesmen for the protesters and others have listed a catalogue of grievances of which the flag issue was ‘just the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ All grievances have been blamed on republicans and nationalists.

This list includes unemployment, educational disadvantage and a supergrass trial that threatens to put some leading UVF figures behind bars. The latter is reported by some journalists as the real reason this organisation continues to keep the protests going. None of these are the result of action by, or the responsibility of, nationalists and republicans. Unemployment, educational disadvantage and poverty are the responsibility of the State from which they wish to be directly ruled and the worst areas for social and economic disadvantage are still by and large Catholic.

The idea that Protestants are unable to express their Britishness, which the more it is expressed the less those who are British recognise themselves in it, is risible. As we have said ‘Hands off our Flag’ is an expression of sectarianism, and they still want it 24/7/365 irrespective of all the other complaints.

So what we have then are relatively small protests involving mainly youths and a hard core of Loyalist paramilitaries some of whom might be facing serious criminal charges in the not too distant future. The political leadership of the protests is extremely weak and is denounced by all mainstream unionist leaders, if only for party political purposes – the Democratic Unionist Party now claims it is the target of the protests, how ironic.

The complaints of the protesters are blamed on those with nothing to do with their grievances and their demands vary over time and are in turn incoherent and contradictory. We are asked to feel their pain as they attempt and often succeed in widespread and sometimes random acts of intimidation on everyone else, regardless of religious background. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the population is fed up with the protests and there is limited appeal for incoherent violence. Many, like the State itself, have assumed, and still assume, that they will burn themselves out.

So how come the protests are able to continue? The most immediate answer is the one we have mentioned. The police have let them. It is assumed by many that once the protests are over the PSNI will quietly round up the miscreants but there is limited reason to assume this. The Chief Constable, fresh from conferring legitimacy on the political front of the UVF by attending and speaking at its conference last year has really said they can do nothing now to stop them. However the loyalist paramilitaries are thoroughly penetrated by the British security services and have in the past been financed, armed and provided with intelligence by them.

The PSNI has said that around 4,000 have taken part in recent protests and they can’t ‘wade in’, ignoring that single republican demonstrations of greater number have in the past received exactly this treatment. The point is not to demand such repression on loyalists because the forces of the state are clearly not an answer to loyalist paramilitarism.

This immediate answer is also the deeper answer. For all their small size and the opprobrium heaped upon them the protesters are not as isolated as they appear.

It was mainstream unionism which kicked the protests off. Their rank and file political representatives have appeared regularly on the protests and their leadership has endorsed their demands. The loyalist paramilitary leaderships have not disowned and expelled their wayward local leaderships and the unionist political parties and paramilitaries have come closer together, most visibly in the new unionist forum. The nationalist and republican parties have called on these mainstream unionist parties to do the right thing as the peace process deal they have sold themselves into necessitates an alliance with unionism. Coalition government is what they have demanded for decades and they have no other strategic perspective. In this way they are prisoners of their unionist partners in government just as they are now wedded to political support for the PSNI.

So the protesters are tied to the unionist parties by their function as foot soldiers for ‘peaceful protest’, by ideology and their ties to loyalist paramilitaries. The state sponsors these paramilitaries but like rabid dogs are not under total control. The paramilitaries are working more closely with the unionist parties and these unionist parties are in government with nationalists and republicans, who are clinging to them for a solution because they value their role in government above all else, including what being in it can actually deliver.

All this is understood by many people if not in quite the way just explained. There is for example the understanding that if the police went in tough to arrest violent protesters or simply to prevent obstruction of the roads this could trigger wider involvement by paramilitaries. Unionist parties might then row in to excuse, justify and attempt to gain control of the protests. The republican and nationalist policy of hugging these unionists would be put under strain and the potential would thereby be created that the existing careful political deal could unravel. This of course is an extreme but not inconceivable scenario.

It is not that the state forces could not succeed in facing down this challenge because it is still unlikely the majority of the population would engage in open rebellion but the existing political dispensation would come under extreme stress. For the British state there might be no victory.

Should they capitulate to the most rabid expressions of sectarian intimidation they leave themselves open to similar challenge in the future and in the meantime convince the nationalist population nothing has really changed – they continue to live in an orange state where loyalist sectarianism sets the rules. If they win they run the risk of inflicting the sort of defeat on unionism that republicanism has just suffered. This led republicans to giving up their armed campaign, accepting partition, accepting Stormont, supporting the police, disarming and then dissolving the IRA. Were a similar defeat inflicted on unionism where goes the basis for British rule and a separate Northern state?

The existing policy of softly, softly or bribes to the criminals involved is therefore an attractive option, as might some concession on flag waving at the City Hall, except that it works only in the short term. Instead of an immediate crisis a gangrenous corruption discredits the state and eats away at its foundations and its legitimacy.

All this reflects that the population of the north of Ireland is still bitterly divided as is the working class despite the hot air about the new modern Northern Ireland, its peace process and the solving of an 800 year old Irish question.

This does not mean that nothing can be done by those seeking to awake from this nightmare of history but this requires that we also stop dreaming that this nightmare is something other than what it is and speak the truth, however unpalatable. There is no progressive impulse behind the protests. They are entirely reactionary and they should be opposed be anyone who considers themselves anti-sectarian. This opposition needs to be organised and make its presence felt. Only then can a path be chartered out for the many workers, Protestant and Catholic, trapped inside this sectarian state.

Northern Nationalism in Denial

untitledWednesday’s Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ betrays the exasperation of many at the continued widespread disruption and violence caused by loyalist protests.  Its front page headlines with ‘Arrest the loyalists who are taking us back to a wasteland’.  Inside, their columnist Brian Feeney excoriates the unionist leadership and their hypocrisy and mendacity.  He dismisses their ‘unionist forum’, which has been called by the unionist political leaders to unite all shades of unionism, and claims that they no longer rule the state, including the police, as they did in the past because “of a raft of legal changes which have gone through in the last 25 years guaranteeing equal rights for all.”  To paraphrase: Unionists will have to accept the reality of equality with nationalists and sit down with them to sort out their problems.

Meanwhile, on that day’s Dublin-based ‘The Irish Times’ its Northern editor reports on the flag riots and the new Unionist Forum and states that “most people will wish it good luck.”

What we have here is three examples in which reality, which stares one in the face, is ignored and sacrificed through ideological wishful thinking.  Let’s take them in turn.

First ‘The Irish News’ calls for the arrest of the loyalist protestors, expressing the now widespread view that they have broken the law and caused widespread disruption and intimidation with seeming impunity.  Inside it has a hard-hitting editorial which never mentions the only people who can carry out their demand and who have so utterly failed to do so – the police.

The new Police Service of Northern Ireland was supposed to banish into history the partiality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary but there is no apparent difference in the way the new PSNI has treated loyalist protest from the old RUC.  In the past this would have led to criticism of the latter but now nationalism supports the PSNI but is faced with the uncomfortable fact that the PSNI appears in no respect to be fundamentally different in its approach.  The paper’s editors are left calling on the new emperor to put on clothes while still cheering him and recoiling from pointing out he hasn’t got any on. It is unable to truly call the police to account or to explain its role in facilitating the protest because to do so might raise uncomfortable questions why all the “raft of legal changes” arising from the peace process have changed so little.

Which brings us to Brian Feeney, who has the same problem, because the last three weeks show that the Northern State continues to treat the two communities differently.  It is hardly conceivable that republicans could have caused the disruption of the past three weeks without vigorous suppression by the State.  So how can he claim that equality is a reality that unionists are refusing to accept?  Just who is blind to reality?

Even if the proposed Unionist Forum is simply an attempt to regain the political initiative by the Unionist parties who set the whole protest off, it signals that only sectarian organisation is capable of political effect.  The joint call by Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein for an end to the protests achieved absolutely nothing.  Brian Feeney calls for the unionists to sit down with nationalists apparently oblivious not only to the fact that they have been doing so throughout the crisis, in fact for over five years but that they have actually been in government together for all this time.  During these years they were supposed to be drawing up a joint anti-sectarianism strategy which was to include how to deal with such issues as flags.  So the clichéd call for the two parties to get together to sort out their differences now has to ignore that this has been a failure.  What’s the alternative now then?

Finally we have the pious declaration of the ‘The Irish Times’ Northern editor that most people will wish the Unionist Forum good luck.  As we have said, if it is to be more than a device for the unionist leaders to regain control, in which case it simply gives control back those who caused the protests in the first place, it will be a sectarian construction uniting the unionist political parties with the political fronts of the loyalist paramilitary outfits who have been organising much of the violence.  The policy of promoting these forces by the state became news again when it was revealed that ex-prisoner groups were to get £4 million in state funds through what has been widely described as a “slush-fund”.  The smell coming from it was such that the neither Peter Robinson nor Martin McGuinness wanted to be publically associated with it despite it coming out of their Office.  Fashionable talk about reconciling the combatants doesn’t look so smart when one set is promoting riots and intimidation in the streets and seemingly getting paid for it.

What we have therefore is Irish nationalism in denial of the reality that stares it in the face.  It is of course possible to deny reality for a long time even while this becomes more and more uncomfortable.  But it is not possible to do so forever.  Its smug assumption that what we have witnessed is unionism in crisis ignores its own role in covering for the Unionist political leaders who kicked the protest off and who they must now cling to as the way out of the protests. It is reflected also in its support for the police who have “facilitated” the protest.

If unionism is in crisis then in a system which is a joint sectarian carve-up so is nationalism.  Most nationalists may not believe it but that too stares them in the face when they can’t get home from work and can’t go Christmas shopping in Belfast city centre.

The 2011 census results in Northern Ireland

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The results from the 2011 Northern Ireland census have been eagerly anticipated because the Northern Ireland state was created, and continues to be justified, by a sectarian head count.  Had partition not been imposed on the island of Ireland either through the independence of the whole island or through continued British rule the census would be interesting but would not in itself raise the question of the state’s existence or legitimacy.  That the census raises both and by virtue of the religious affiliation of the people who live in it is in itself a condemnation of the Northern state.

The census revealed that the Protestant population has declined to 48% in 2011 from 53% in 2001 while that of the Catholic has increased to 45% from 44%.  In order to arrive at these figures the 17% who said they had no religion, or the religion was not stated, were asked what religion they were brought up in.  A sort of ‘you can run but you cannot hide’ from religion no matter how much you might want to.  This is similar to employment monitoring which asked not what your religion is but what community you are perceived to belong to. The latter leads to mistakes if you happen to read ‘The Irish News’ in your lunch break and show a partiality to Glasgow Celtic when discussing football in the office but have never ever been to your first holy communion.

In the latest census 5.6% say they neither belong to nor have been brought up in any religion, up from 3% who said they belonged to neither religious category in 2001.  The census of course is silent on whether anyone brought up in any religion, or who professes to be a member, has complete faith in that religion’s doctrines, respects its institutions and cadres, accepts and identifies with any of its associated cultural practices (like going to mass) or follows its leadership in any way.  So even on this the census raises more questions than it answers.

The question that an answer is sought for most is the political views of the population, which has always been strongly linked to religious affiliation.  The same problems arise in making any firm assessment of what this information means.  First political views are read across from identification of nationality rather as if the latter determined the former in some over-riding way.  However one can identify oneself as British and be appalled at the way sectarianism seeps from every pore of society and one can define oneself as Irish and still reject all the isms that supposedly accompany it such as Catholicism and nationalism.  The full range of political positions in between are absent from the census as is beliefs on how ones political views are to be put into action.

The census is full of boxes and people, even in Northern Ireland, do not fit into them, or if they do they often do not do so neatly.  The census itself is a means of forcing them to do so but because they don’t debate is now raging over what the figures mean.

So 40% said they had a British only national identity, 25% an Irish only identity and 21% a Northern Irish only identity.  It was possible for example to tick two boxes and say you were both British and Northern Irish, which was ticked by 6.2%; 5% were none of these nationalities.

It is the combination of the religion and nationality results that has raised most debate.  Are those that say they are Northern Irish mainly pointing to the fact that they are Irish but from the North, or simply as a matter of fact citizens of the Northern State, or are they saying that they recognise a separate Northern Ireland nationality that  may or may not thereby warrant a separate state?

Commentators have noted that a large section of the population that are Catholic have not identified themselves as Irish but probably as Northern Irish and some no doubt as British.  This information will be released later.  From this it might be judged that even if they are culturally Irish (whatever that means) they are either happy with British jurisdiction or might be, given certain conditions.  In any case they might not, if asked to in a referendum, vote for a united Ireland.  They are what has been described by First Minister Peter Robinson as Catholics who support the union and who the Democratic Unionist Party could canvass for support. Many in this group however currently vote for nationalist parties – either Sinn Fein or the SDLP.

This however shows only the limitations of deriving conclusions from figures in a census.  Robinson has made reference to a majority of Catholics who support the union.  He has also prominently supported loyalist bands parading past a Catholic Church at which one band had previously stopped and marched round in circles playing a sectarian song.  He also called onto the streets the loyalist mobs that have protested against the reduced flying of the union flag over Belfast City Hall.  This has resulted in violent demonstrations, attacks – particularly on the Alliance Party – and death threats.  Loyalist mobs have repeatedly blocked roads or carried out violent attacks.  They have wandered round Belfast City Hall with union flags singing sectarian songs associated with old and new Glasgow Rangers football club supporters and burning Irish tricolours.

The unionists have done this on the basis that the union flag is their flag, a symbol of unionist and Protestant identity.  The Catholics whom Robinson supposedly seeks support from are therefore being told to accept that the trappings of state are those of a different religion and alien political tradition.  The party traditionally associated with the pretence to a non-sectarian union with Britain is the Alliance Party which the DUP and loyalists have made a main target of their attacks.  So much for a non-sectarian Northern Ireland.

This week has also witnessed another report on the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane which revealed massive collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the state.  The report, despite it being inadequate, has yet again revealed the widespread use by the British State of the most extreme sectarian bigots to kill anyone who gets in its way.

The report revealed that the forces of the British State in the shape of the army, police, security service and top level officials were all instrumental in murder.  The prominent Home office junior minister Douglass Hogg set the scent by declaring, after briefing by the police, that certain lawyers were unduly sympathetic to the IRA and legions of later government ministers and politicians did their bit by strenuously denying claims of collusion.  The report is unable to say how high up collusion went but is nevertheless sure that there was no overarching conspiracy.  The Finucane family have pointed out that those most damned are dead as are the organisations most criticised.  We are expected to believe that all this is in the past.

Unfortunately state collusion with loyalism never ended.  The treatment of widespread loyalist protest over the past week or so has revealed yet again the partial attitude of the police to loyalist illegality and violence.  The new police force declare that there is no evidence of the loyalist paramilitary leadership being involved while it is impossible to deny that the protests have been organised by these same organisations. The distinction between leadership and organisations is introduced to protect the leadership.

So we have the unionist movement claiming that the symbols of the British State are Protestant and another exposure of how this state has worked hand in glove with the most extreme bigots to kill those entirely engaged in lawful activity.  In the past week the widespread but relatively small protests have been allowed to cause considerable disruption where, had it been republican protest, it is almost certain they would have been suppressed.

In other words the State to which Catholics are more and more assumed to owe some loyalty to and to identify with has been found, both through its most fervent supporters and its officially authorised defenders, to be guilty of the most rabid bigotry and violence.  Therefore even if the former is true, and more Catholics are prepared to accept it, political developments may be such that is doesn’t matter what some people believe to be the case, it is what is actually the case that will matter.  In politics as in everything else people are free to believe what they want but they are not free to make what they want actually be the case.

While the census results cannot be read simply to determine and predict political developments, and they cannot even be confident in population projections, the figures revealed have their own political impact.

For a state set up on the basis of a sectarian head count that head count is important.  The publication of figures showing the Protestant population is no longer an absolute majority and the gap between them and the Catholic population is narrowing is a blow to unionist claims.

When the Northern state was set up Ulster Unionists had the opportunity to justify the Ulster part of their self-description by pushing for the inclusion of all 9 counties of the province within British jurisdiction.  They did not because they wanted their hold to be secure and it needed a sizeable Protestant majority because the support of the minority was not to be expected.  Now that the religious populations are so near in size it does not make sense to fight to make the state an expression of a sectarian identity if the purpose is to defend the union.  It does however make sense if the purpose is to maintain sectarian power and division.  It then makes perfect sense that even the slightest hint that within the Protestant community this sectarian solidarity is not primary should be squashed – hence the attacks on the Alliance Party.

On the other hand the census does not support a perspective based on a Catholic majority voting a united Ireland, at least not for a long time.  The previous census results appeared amidst widespread speculation of a large increase in the Catholic population, an increase that didn’t materialise.  This latest census has recorded only a small increase, albeit that Catholics are a majority in the youngest age groups.  Even in purely demographic terms this does not mean an inevitable Catholic majority and in political terms the significantly lower proportion defining themselves as Irish hardly gives confidence that even a future Catholic majority will simply demand a united Ireland.  This is especially so given that the Ireland that they might be united with is such an unattractive political entity.

With these alternative programmes and the near equivalence of populations the prognosis can hardly be one of stability.  The need for some alternative is currently championed by the call for mutual respect and reconciliation but this is proving more than a little difficult.  How can two mutually exclusive, even antagonistic, claims show respect to each other never mind be reconciled?  The DUP and Sinn Fein have supposedly been working on an anti-sectarian policy for five years and there is no sign of it while it took the unionist parties five days to propose the union flag fly all-year round at Stormont.

This policy of reconciliation is actually accommodation of sectarianism not its eradication.  Instead of the sectarian politicians being the solution it is unionist politicians who kicked off the recent protests.  Reconciliation means Sinn Fein covering up for the worst of unionist aggression.  So after getting the flag down (some of the time) Sinn Fein then votes along with those who created the violent protest in a hypocritical Assembly motion condemning violence, thus implicitly absolving the DUP and Unionist Party of responsibility.  The flying of the union flag, as we pointed out here before on this question, is a means of intimidation.  The purpose of it flying at City Hall as on every other Government building is to sanction the many, many more union flags that fly all over the North which tell Catholics that this place is not theirs and tells Protestants that their place is anti-Catholic.

The possibility of such a situation being compatible with a shared Northern Ireland national identity, much trumpeted by the media in the wake of the census results, is remote.  The only identity that can be shared by Protestants and Catholics is one that expresses something that they have in common. What is it that they have in common that could possibly form the basis for such unity?

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.