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

NorthernIrelandCouncils-religion2008 

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.

Sectarianism in Belfast. What’s new?

On July 12 this year a loyalist flute band marched past St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Donegall Street near Belfast city centre.  They stopped at that particular point by “pure chance” and started walking round in circles playing a tune known as the Famine Song, which contains the line “the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”  This song is sung by supporters of Rangers Football club in Scotland and refers to the large Irish and predominantly Catholic immigration into Scotland from the 19th century onwards.  It has been found to be both sectarian and illegal by the Scottish courts.  According to the band and their political apologists they were merely playing a pop song.  Perhaps it was again mere chance it doubles as a sectarian anthem.  Perhaps also those allegations of an attack on a cameraman filming this Orange version of the X Factor are also mistaken.

On this basis the Parades Commission, a quango established by the British government to adjudicate on contentious parades, decided the band could not take part in the loyalist parade last Saturday, which was to pass the same church.  The other bands were also only allowed to march by a single drum beat past the church.

Unionist politicians were outraged and issued a statement, along with assorted flute bands, denouncing the Parades Commission, saying they were running out of adjectives to describe it , so they gave some nouns instead – “arrogance”, “incompetence” and “general ignorance”. This statement was signed by prominent members of the Stormont Government who claimed that they could no longer let the Parades Commission do untold damage to the peace process. “Violence” would potentially ensue, they said.

So on Saturday the loyalist flute band at the centre of events marched as normal and played the normal sectarian tunes that are the staple of these ‘kick the pope’ bands, as did many of the rest. The normal sectarian insults were hurled, which are surprising only to those terminally stupid or naive.   The police did nothing that anyone could notice to prevent this.  Well, not exactly nothing: there is a picture of one policeman using a loudhailer to tell the passing bands that they were really not allowed to do what they were doing.  This robust action will no doubt be followed by the police warning burglars by megaphone that they are breaking the law when they are seen to break into someone else’s house in broad daylight. Through the Police Federation the police later complained of being caught in the crossfire, presumably between those intent on breaking the law and those who were, well, how shall we say it, wanting it upheld?

There were minor scuffles and one apparent loyalist from Scotland was arrested for running through a nationalist protest, although this was blamed by one unionist politician on a republican.

So we have a loyalist coat-trailing exercise in bigotry, defended by the most senior unionist politicians who warn of violence, which stokes up the adrenaline of the street level bigot but allows the unionist politician to deny any responsibility when the lighted match touches the blue touch paper.  The police wring their hands and the nationalist politicians talk about getting it all sorted out through talking.  You have to be very, very young not be aware that this record has been played a thousand times before.  So what’s new then?

Well what is new is supposed to be – everything!  We have a new peace process, a new political settlement, a new Government and a new coalition between the “two sides”.  Belfast has a new skyline with lots of new visitor attractions welcoming tourists, which is still a relatively new concept to Belfast.  We have new cafes and restaurants and art galleries and a new generation too young to remember ‘the troubles’ and which just wants to live in peace and has no time for this sectarian stuff.

But we have been here before.  Belfast in the 1960s was also a ‘happening’ city with a burgeoning night-life whose young generation was hailed as no longer interested in the sectarianism of the past.  The sixties brought new life, hope and light even to Belfast and not just the streets of London or San Francisco.  New housing was being created that was demolishing the slums that had no inside toilet and entries that doubled as permanent rubbish tips.  Some of this new corporation housing promised mixed estates and a new Unity Flats was built at the bottom of the Shankill Road only a couple of hundred yards, if that, from St. Patrick’s church.  Unity Flats was so called because it was to contain both Protestant and Catholic tenants, sharing the one space in harmony.

We all know, or at least have some vague idea, what happened at the end of the sixties.  That swinging decade that even moved in Belfast was very new and modern but Belfast was incapable of accepting civil rights, including fair allocation of housing and jobs and equal voting rights.  Instead it burst into violence, with Orange parades which were hyped up by unionist politicians and a police force that could not subject violent bigots to the normal restrictions of the ordinary law.  Of course this violent explosion hasn’t happened yet and in my view isn’t going to happen, not yet at least.

The mutual exhaustion of the contending political forces has not yet ended and been reversed.  The unionist leaders are attempting to exert pressure that might eventually usher in their preferred model of unionist-only rule but they are not in a position to force a confrontation that would see the British Government accede to their demands. It is not impossible that a violent eruption might occur that goes beyond unionist plans but it needs a realistic objective and the aim of getting Sinn Fein out of government has not yet become the unifying campaign theme within unionism and loyalist organisations that is required.

Instead the provocative and vitriolic sectarianism endorsed by unionist politicians in the highest offices of the Stormont administration erodes the faith of nationalists in the new deal. The approach of Sinn Fein to the recent events has been relatively muted and resembles nothing so much as the old SDLP approach which so many nationalists rejected by supporting the old (republican) Sinn Fein.  Here too however there is no unified project beyond staying in office and doing nothing to jeopardise the electoral prospects of Sinn Fein in the South.

The real republicans can attempt to take advantage of the disillusionment with the Sinn Fein reaction to the sectarian provocation and can build up their support base but what is their political project?  In so far as it simply involves a renewed armed campaign it only strengthens the ideological hold of the peace process even while more and more people, subconsciously at first, begin to wonder when exactly this process, like every other, is going to end.  The traditional republican policy isn’t credible except as a form of protest but outside of an overarching strategy this republicanism isn’t in a position yet to mobilise a large political opposition.

A large scale sectarian provocation might accelerate these trends and the planned large loyalist parade on 29 September past the same church certainly has the potential to be such a provocation.  It might at the least drive home the lessons of last Saturday if it goes ahead as the parade did then.

The condemnation by two Protestant church leaders of the sectarian behaviour of the loyalist bands shows how vulnerable the loyalists are to criticism.  It is their solutions and that of the Catholic Church that is the problem.  They both want to set the rulings of the Parades Commission as inviolable.  The Catholic Church is worse because it calls for special measures to apply when the parades pass a place of worship conveniently setting themselves up as victim, potentially privileged  protection in future while turning a blind eye to the fact that a sectarian march is a sectarian march no matter where it passes. Its vitriolic bigotry is no more acceptable a hundred yards from a church than right in front of it.

What is needed is an anti-sectarian campaign that is unafraid to name sectarianism when it sees it and is not seduced by the siren calls for equality of traditions, including mutual respect for each other’s culture.  There can be no equality for a tradition based on sectarian supremacy or respect for a culture soaked in bigotry.  Such a campaign would target not just loyalist parades but the sectarian policy creeping into housing policy and the recent discriminatory employment practices of Sinn Fein.  It would challenge the trade unions to take a principled stand and, at least in principle, should be capable of uniting much of the small left. The ULA could take the lead on this in the South by making it an issue on the floor of the Dail as the clarion call for an all-island campaign.  To do otherwise is to turn one’s back on sectarianism while claiming this as the means of opposing it.

The main task would be to rip away the protection of the current sectarian arrangements that are more and more revealing their true colours by refusing to subordinate anti-sectarianism to the demands of the peace process, however this is defined.  What sort of peace is it that allows, even sanctions, the displays of sectarian bigotry on display in Donegall Street on Saturday?