Political propagandists and political murder in Belfast

Feeney 1imagesAs the political crisis generated by the killing of Gerard McGuigan by IRA members threatens to spiral out of control the politically weary population is invited to pick sides on what is to happen next, with seemingly everyone in favour of keeping Stormont while everyone knows it’s rotten.

This appears to put the onus on being able to blame someone else in order to defend a sectarian corner and the particular rights assumed inside the settlement.

The ‘right’ attitude to the killing has therefore to be asserted first, although it is of the least concern to the parties involved in yet another round of talks.

As a result a notable feature of reaction to the murder of Gerard McGuigan has been the propensity of nationalist commentators to ventilate on the synthetic character of unionist outrage at the murder.  In other words the outrage is fake – they don’t care about dead ex IRA men.

If that were the only point being made the response should be one of agreement.  Yes, unionists have ignored state and loyalist violence and have collaborated openly with paramilitary groups so their condemnation of republican violence is hollow.  They don’t care about dead IRA men and their actions since the latest killing is guided by purely party political calculations.

But that isn’t all there is to it.  The point being made by these nationalist commentators is that what has happened shouldn’t be allowed to upset the current political arrangements because the outrage is phoney.  Just as I pointed out in the previous post on this (that the new peace institutions are now the justification for ignoring the killing of others) so expressing outrage at the killing is also to be discounted because the main unionist complainants are insincere.

And the fact that this outrage is insincere means that this is a purely manufactured crisis that originates in unionist bad faith.  This bad faith is therefore the problem.  The perfidious British however have turned this around, as they usually do, in order to appease unionism.

So nationalists are invited by these commentators to believe that what must be discussed now is not what the danger is to those who fall foul of the Provisional IRA but how the institutions can be saved.  The British are happy to go along with this but add that this involves giving the unionists confidence.  But since this a purely subjective thing we are in the world of Humpty Dumpty – confidence means just what unionists choose it to mean, neither more nor less.

So yes, nationalists have a point about pandering to unionist hypocrisy but they have a problem when they allow this hypocrisy to become their moral compass by replying to unionist hypocrisy with their own.

They have a problem when they excoriate British pandering to unionist violence while turning a blind eye to Provisional murder.  So the outrage at the latter is fake – let’s ignore both it and the event that occasioned it.  Then we can have our equal and opposite hypocrisy.  Unionists complain about Provo violence but we will turn a blind eye to it and complain about loyalist violence.

In this way the sectarian perfect circle of hell attempts to trap everyone within it, everything and everyone is to be defined by sectarian division.

A prime example of this capture by sectarian division, involving capitulation to acceptance of reactionary political violence, can be seen in the regular political columnist in the largest nationalist paper in the North, Brian Feeney in yesterday’s ‘Irish News’.

So the police fingering of Provisional IRA members for the murder of Kevin McGuigan was “ill-considered”.  As I also pointed out before – I wonder would he therefore have considered well-judged the previous failure to finger the loyalist UVF for the attempted murder of a young woman in the same area.

Feeney had a previous column on the unionist invention of the 1960s civil rights campaign as an IRA plot, a fiction of course, but what had this to do with the real IRA plot to kill McGuigan, unless he wanted to claim it too was another unionist fiction?

Instead he goes along with the Sinn Fein line that what this is all about is unionist refusal to live in equality with nationalists: “This refusal to accept mere equality prevents them seeing themselves in the same light as nationalists and republicans.”

He appears totally oblivious to the fact that with this attitude of Nelsonian ignorance of IRA responsibility in murder he should really be writing that nationalists should now see themselves in the same light as unionists, united equally in the same light of sectarian blindness.

By such a descent into sectarianism are nationalist claims for equality to become nationalist equality in sectarianism, which is indeed the political project of Sinn Fein.

He then makes hay with silly and insensitive remarks about “the futile and fatuous attempt to abolish the IRA.”  How would anyone know “if someone has left the IRA? . . how would anyone prove they’d left?”

So does Feeney not want to see the end of the UDA and UVF?  Would Feeney be questioning as futile and fatuous calls for an end to loyalist paramilitaries if they had just killed someone?

Sure how would you know whether they or the Provisional IRA had gone away or not?

Well here’s a start.  You might have a chance of convincing someone they had disappeared if they didn’t kill those who fall foul of them.

Feeney complains that the leader of the DUP Peter Robinson needs to feel that he is “not bound by any constraints that apply to normal relationships.”  Leaving aside what counts for normal in the North of Ireland, does he not think such a remark might also be pointed in another direction?

It was bad enough when the British so openly overlooked and colluded in political murder by loyalists but their shameless excuses for the Provisional IRA and its supposed peaceful intentions complete the circle that working people in the North have to break from.  In this case nationalist workers should see through the muck apparently thrown at the British and unionists because it’s really being thrown in their eyes.  Who else is expected to listen to Feeney?

 

The politics of murder in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The political import of the killing is the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The UK general election part 3: sectarianism and democracy

SF 1 downloadIn the final post on the UK general election I want to look at the results from my own little polity and the political slum that is Northern Ireland.  Like all slums the blame for its condition lies with the landlord, the British state.  As usual all the tenants hope and expect that the landlord will clean it up. But it never does.

There the analogy should rest.  The most recent election was notable for what the front page of the Northern nationalist paper, ‘The Irish News’, described as ‘Nationalists turn away from the polls’.  Their parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, collected 38.4% of the vote while the DUP and Ulster Unionists captured 41.7%.  The latter figure does not include the various other unionist parties such as Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP which brings the unionist total to 46.6%. If we include the Alliance Party, which is a unionist party in all but name, the unionist vote was 55.2%.

The message?  There isn’t going to be a United Ireland any time soon.  The Sinn Fein vote went down slightly by 1% even while the SDLP vote declined by 2.6% and it lost the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, not the way they wanted to enter into the historic hundredth anniversary of the 1916 rising.  ‘The Irish News’ explained that the nationalist vote had declined to its lowest level since the 1992 Westminster vote, which is before the ceasefires. That is, before the current peace process ‘strategy’ of republicans was/is supposed to deliver a united Ireland.

None of this fits with the accepted story of a rising Catholic population and a more and more demoralised Protestant one.  Sooner or later, the story goes, there will be a Catholic majority that will vote in a united Ireland. The truth of this is accepted by many and, I would hazard a guess, by many who would deny it vehemently in public.  I remember my aunt, a Shankill Road Protestant, remark about 25 years ago that there would eventually be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  And she was at least half right in that.

Socialists have always supported self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, as the only democratic response to the Irish national question.  Not of course universally.  The Militant Tendency/Socialist Party tradition with its notoriously statist view of socialism, which incidentally has nothing to do with Marxism, has always managed to get it wrong.  Its statist view has seen it join left nationalist formations in Britain such as NO2EU, and it led the rightward collapse of the left in Scotland into Scottish nationalism.  In the North of Ireland on the other hand, entirely consistent with its accommodation to whatever nationalism is strongest, it has capitulated time and time again to loyalism and the British State.

This general response of socialist to the national question remains correct but the growth of nationalism in the North of Ireland, which now appears halted, has demonstrated that democracy is not a classless construct.  Bourgeois democracy in a society which has always been characterised by sectarianism has definite limits.

These limits are demonstrated in the more and more sectarian expression of northern nationalism.  This means that the expression of democracy by the working class can only be of a non-sectarian character, or it would fail to be a particular expression of the working class.  In other words the expression of a democratic alternative to partition must come from the working class and not from any nationalist formation.  It must therefore be non-sectarian, not in an unconscious sense, in which to be anti-imperialist is somehow also to be ‘objectively’ anti-sectarian, but in a conscious sense that this is the key objective – of uniting the working class.  Just like Scotland so must this be the case in Ireland, that socialism cannot be derived from what happens to be bad for the UK state but from the political unity of workers.

The degeneration of Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism demonstrates that fidelity to the belief in a united Ireland is no guarantee of progressive politics.  It used to be said that Irish republicanism was largely confined to Catholics because of sectarianism and this also remains true but it is also now the case that the Irish republicanism of Sinn Fein is confined to Catholics because it is sectarian.

Once the Provisionals stopped fighting the British and decided to join in the governance of its system, and started asking the landlord to sort out the slum – the landlord responsible for its creation – it stopped having any claim to progressive status.  It then became the most militant and vocal champion of Catholic rights, not civil rights, but sectarian rights.  This has been exposed in the case of a prominent Sinn Fein Minister and also in the recent election.

In North Belfast Sinn Fein put out an election leaflet that included a graphic showing the Catholic and Protestant proportions of the constituency, the none too subtle message being that the majority Catholic constituency should be electing a Sinn Fein MP.  But of course that also means that Protestants must vote for the sitting Unionist MP.

The Sinn Fein excuses for it only bury it deeper in the sectarian mire.  First the excuses arrived only after it spent weeks defending the leaflet.  Then it wanted, it said, to use the terms nationalist and unionist but the Post Office said census figures had to be couched in terms of Catholic and Protestant.  So what it is saying, after trying to blame the Post Office, is that  instead of rejecting the graphic it decided that yes indeed substitution of Nationalist and Unionist by Catholic and Protestant was fine.  Now we know what it means when it uses the former terms in future.

Oh, and one more thing.  It regretted its decision to include the graphic – as Mr Gerry Kelly said “I think, in retrospect, the decision then should probably have been to withdraw the graph, because it did give an argument to our opponents, whether that was the SDLP or unionists.”  Yes Gerry, you’re right about that.

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The reactionary position of Sinn Fein was also demonstrated in another graphic used on its leaflet for their candidate in South Belfast.  Having misleadingly described the candidate as ‘the poll topper’ – in fact the sitting MP was from the SDLP – it then said he was the ‘only Progressive Candidate who can win’ – clearly not the case since the SDLP were not listed by the leaflet as one of the five parties ‘united for austerity.’

These five parties were the Conservatives, DUP, UUP, UKIP and Alliance Parties. One of these parties stood out from the others – the DUP.  Why? – because Sinn Fein is in permanent coalition with this party.  And at the time the leaflet was put through the doors the Tories looked like they might be relying on the DUP to get them into power.

Wouldn’t that have looked lovely – the so-called anti-austerity Sinn Fein in Government with the DUP who were keeping the austerity-inflicting Tories in Government.  Don’t bother to try to work out how Sinn Fein would have justified it, they have been justifying inflicting one of the most right wing parties in Europe on this part of the continent for years.

‘The Irish News’ front page has reflected the disorientation of Northern nationalism following the election.  It produced some commentator to explain what had gone wrong.

Apparently  there is a ‘growing number of nationalists who appear switched off from the electoral process (reflecting) a community more at ease with Northern Ireland.’

The commentator said that “I think unionism is more highly strung about identity issues.  Nationalism is more happy in general with the status quo and there is a lack of competition between the parties.  Nationalism is suffering a retreat.”

Almost all of this is rubbish.

Yes, nationalism is suffering a retreat, it’s been retreating for years, and now endorses the legitimacy of partition and its institutions, the British nationality of Irish Protestants and the unionist veto on a united Ireland.

Contrary to its assertion, there is no lack of competition among nationalist parties and unlike unionism there was no electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Fein during the election.

Relatively high unionist participation in the election is not because they are more highly strung about identity; in fact the lack of unionist voter participation has been remarked upon for years.  Did they suddenly get a fit of the nerves just recently?  Newspapers have recently reported increasing numbers of parents from what is called ‘a Protestant background’ refusing to designate their children as Protestant at school.

The fall in the nationalist vote is not because nationalists are happy with the status quo but exactly the opposite.  The stench of nepotism, cronyism and corruption from Stormont is all the more repelling on the nationalist side given the claims to radical politics and progressive change from the nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Fein.

Instead the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition Government has been beset by crisis, incapacity, incompetence, secrecy, arrogance, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and financial scandal.  The simplest of questions don’t get answered for years (perhaps never) by Government departments with dozens of communications staff.

The latest such offerings are the revelation of the extent of the employment of Special Advisors (SPADS) employed by all the parties in office without any public recruitment process.  These SPADS are supposed to bring special skills to their political masters, the most prominent of which appears to be their close connection to the parties and their ability to hide any special skills.

freedom of information request revealed that in one financial year the Stormont Executive spent almost £2m on these SPADS, more than the Scottish and Welsh governments combined.  In 2013/2014, the pay bands and grades for these special advisers varied across the UK, going from £36,000 up to £91,000.  In Scotland, three of them were in the top pay band while at Stormont all 21 posts were.

The second is the scandal around a contractor to the Housing Executive which we reported on before here and here.  The SPAD at the centre of the controversy, far from being dumped has been promoted while it is reported that the DUP member who took a more principled stand is being subject to disciplinary action by the party.  At the end of an editorial dripping with scorn ‘The Irish News’ declared of the Stormont regime that “it is increasingly doubtful if the institutions are worth preserving in the first place.”

When the main voice of constitutional nationalism expresses exasperation with the peace process institutions it really does mean a lot of nationalists are thoroughly disillusioned.  This is one of the main results of the election.  In itself it is not a positive but it is certainly a prerequisite for one to develop.

 

Racism and anti-racism in Belfast

 

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

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

Oh dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The arrest of Gerry Adams

images (6)When Gerry Adams was arrested for the murder in 1972 of mother-of- ten Jean McConville Sinn Féin claimed it was “political policing. The arrest of a high profile political leader during an election could hardly be anything else.  That the intention to question him was notified by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to the highest levels of government in advance and that this government tells us it is keeping Washington informed is simply confirmation.

Yet when it comes to explaining what this political policing amounts to, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness claims lamely that the arrest is due to a “small cabal” of police officers, “an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary)”.  McGuinness claims that other police sources have described these people as the “dark side”.

So it’s not really political policing but a “rump” that presumably can be dealt with.

Yet Sinn Féin hasn’t asked for this but just a vague wish that the episode is “resolved in a satisfactory way”.  Meanwhile the party will continue to “support the reformers who have made a massive contribution to policing” while saying that if it “does not work out the way that it should” the party will review the situation “in the context of continuing with a positive and constructive role in a vitally important peace process”.

However the press conference at which all this was said was really about a threat to reverse its previous political support for the PSNI, an event that would precipitate yet another crisis in the never-ending peace process.

But how can Sinn Féin complain of political policing when it supports this policing?  How can it issue vague hopes that everything turns out ok when it also claims that policing is accountable?  Why is it threatening to withdraw support (in a very vague and indirect way) when it can hold the police to account for its actions?  Why doesn’t it just do that?

Graffiti has gone up in West Belfast attacking “Boston College Touts” (informers), i.e. those who gave their accounts of their own and Adams’ involvement in the IRA and its abduction of Jean McConville to the American institution , the acquisition of which may be the basis of his arrest.

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Yet how can these people be touts when Sinn Féin supports the PSNI and has called for everyone to give the police whatever information they have on the actions of republicans (i.e. the dissidents)?  The hypocrisy involved is as staggering as it is completely unselfconscious.

McGuinness claims that “Sinn Féin’s negotiations strategy succeeded in achieving new policing arrangements, but we always knew that there remained within the PSNI an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary).”  Yet it never made any qualification when it announced its original support for the PSNI.

Does this mean it only supports part of the PSNI or only partly support the PSNI?  Which part? How is everyone else supposed to know which part to support?  How would it and everyone else partly support the PSNI?

How can such a situation exist when Sinn Fein is in government?  How could the brilliant negotiators of Sinn Fein agree to a deal to support the police without getting a guarantee its leader would not be lifted for allegations made years ago?

Why is Sinn Féin making such an issue of Adams’ arrest when it never threatened to withdraw support from the PSNI when the PSNI spent months allowing loyalist crowds, led by the UVF, to disrupt everyone else trying to get home during the flags protests?

Why did it not threaten to withdraw support when these illegal parades were allowed by the PSNI, in fact the PSNI met with organisers to arrange them, and not do so when these parades attacked the small Catholic area of the Short Strand?  Only this week a judge found the PSNI (all of it, its leadership included and not just some “rump”) guilty of failing to enforce the law when it came to illegal loyalist parades.

Again these last few weeks drunken loyalist paramilitary mobs have taken down legal election posters and put up their own flags on main roads in Belfast,  right in front of police stations, while the PSNI has told local residents on no account to take them down.  Is it only Sinn Féin’s leaders who must be protected from the “dark side”?

And why indeed should Adams be protected?  He denies any responsibility for Jean McConville’s killing but then he also denies ever being in the IRA.  Other former IRA members, with unimpeachable republican credentials, have admitted their involvement and claimed Adams was in on it.

As the recently deceased IRA member Dolours Price put it “I wanted very much to put Gerry Adams where he belonged and where he had been. We had worked so closely with him, on many occasions and taken orders from him on many occasions and then to deny us, particularly after we had been through such a harrowing experience in prison … we were offended that he chose to deny us as much as he chose to deny his belonging to the IRA. To deny it is to offend those of us who partook in what we partook in.”

The message on the hill overlooking Belfast calls for the truth about the British Army murders of 11 people in Ballymurphy in August 1971, an enquiry into which has just been rejected by the British Government, but the same demand can apply to Adams.

But bad as these questions are for Sinn Féin none of them get anywhere near the biggest problem it has.   And this problem is that Adams would not have been arrested if the British Government had not given it the ok.  The political policing of which Sinn Féin speaks is not the actions of a “small rump” but the actions of a state.

That Sinn Féin should peddle the line of ‘sources’ within the PSNI that what is involved are the actions of “dark forces” against the reformers, “the many progressive and open-minded elements” of the PSNI that McGuinness hallucinates, is to swallow the old good-cop bad-cop tactic that old IRA men must have been warned about if caught or arrested.  That this is now the line of Sinn Féin shows how far it has travelled and so low it has sunk.

Swallowing and parroting this means buying into the designs of the British state just as much as swallowing the good cop line gives you the bad cop result.  What this means has been signalled by the British Government.

Recent speeches by Teresa Villiers, the NI Secretary of State, have glossed over the refusal of the Unionists to accept the deal offered by US diplomat Richard Haas, and supported by the British state itself,  and have conciliated their intransigent line, which itself is a play to extreme loyalism.  So the crimes of the state, never investigated with any seriousness it has been revealed, are even more to be airbrushed out of existence and instead it is the crimes of the “terrorists” which must be centre stage.  The role of state forces in sponsoring these terrorist gangs will of course also be occluded.

So the past will more and more become the one imagined by unionism.  Parades? Well the Parades Commission has given every evidence that its restrictions on loyal orders can be ignored with impunity.  Getting a form of words that ends with the same result might not be difficult given even a minimal willingness of loyalism to engage with Catholic residents whose neighbourhoods they parade in.  Flegs? Well we have noted the PSNI’s preference to let drunken loyalist mobs put up whatever symbols of intimidation they want.

That about completes the Haas agenda but even these do not signal the end game and this too is coming more into focus in a statement of Villiers.

In a speech widely reported, but the reporting of which missed its most significant element, Villiers anticipated the rewriting of the political deal on which Sinn Féin can claim success.  She foresees the “evolution” of the power-sharing institutions towards them having an opposition.

The whole point however of these institutions is that no one is in opposition, in particular nationalists are not put into opposition by unionists who have not demonstrated any capacity to act in other than a sectarian fashion.

It’s put in the usual honeyed words:

“The third way in which politics could be moved forward here is through the evolution of the devolved institutions.

Let me be clear, power sharing and inclusivity are enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and the government is not going to undermine any of those principles.

. . . Yet at the same time nobody can plausibly argue that the institutions must be set in stone for all time.

Political institutions the world over adapt and change.

As the founding father of modern Conservatism – the Irishman Edmund Burke – once put it:

‘A state without the means of change is without means of preservation.’

And there are inherent weaknesses in a system in which it is very difficult to remove one’s rulers by voting and to choose a viable alternative.

That’s why this government is clear that we would welcome moves that facilitate a more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition, so long as a way can be found to do this which is consistent with power sharing and inclusivity.

But we also believe that if or how this happens really has to be primarily for parties in the Assembly to take forward, not least because it is so firmly within the Assembly’s competence to deal with those matters that might characterise an opposition, such as speaking rights, financial assistance and committee chairmanships.”

So at the moment the British Government would be quite happy for the Stormont regime to have parties outside Government if this was accepted by these parties, if it was voluntary.  No longer is this anathema, no longer is such a suggestion the antithesis of what the new arrangements are about.  Now this is both a viable and even preferred destination.

But of course it has to be voluntary.  Since having the nationalists in opposition is the primary objective of unionism such a policy stance is not so much a disinterested, absent-minded meandering on possible future directions as an incentive for unionism to get nationalists, or at least Sinn Féin, out of Government, “voluntarily”.

This is not actually the preferred British solution but it is testimony to how far it will go to keep unionism inside the existing deal that it floats ideas that while mollifying unionism actually increase instability.

That it only undermines the deal more and more by emboldening unionism and feeding its triumphalist agenda demonstrates only the continuing contradictions within the imperialist settlement – continuation of a sectarian state and sectarian political arrangements while hoping that this sectarianism can be made innocuous or at least reduced to an acceptable level, just as there used to be an “acceptable level of violence.”

So the incentive for unionism is to continue not to work the existing institutions while seeming to maintain a modicum of good faith, obstruct and provoke Sinn Féin as much as it can without damaging itself and hope that the sheer impossibility of Sinn Féin putting up with its obvious powerlessness gets the right reaction.

Unfortunately for them it is perfectly obvious that Sinn Féin will cling to the Stormont regime like grim death with no humiliation too embarrassing and no rebuke too severe for it to walk away. Sinn Féin will hold on to the appearance of power even when this appearance has gone.

But if clinging to the trappings of office becomes the main objective the point of actually having it – making changes – grows ever less important.  Being in office in the North is important for Sinn Féin getting into office in the South and it believes that it being in office in both Irish states on the centenary of 1916 will be a powerful symbol.

Indeed it will.  It will symbolise that the party has realised its strategy but that this strategy is ultimately a failure.  A Sinn Féin in government in both partitioned states will still leave both partitioned states in place.  Sinn Féin will simply sit over both.  Should it stay in office the sight of it doing so will prove no more remarkable than the sight of Sinn Féin toasting the Queen of Great Britain.

How quickly can illusions be shattered.  Fresh from congratulating themselves and being congratulated by the chattering classes for its wearing of white tails and standing for “God save the Queen” the acceptance of the privileges of the British monarchy is rammed home by her state exercising its powers as it sees fit.

Why toasting the symbol of oppression should lessen this oppression or limit its exercise can nowhere be explained by Sinn Féin.  When one swallows the toast there can be little complaint when one has to swallow a whole lot more.

Whatever the outcome of Adams’ arrest the whole exercise is a brutal demonstration of Sinn Féin failure and it will cost it in the long run.  The grounds for creation of an alternative are clearer but unfortunately there is no sign yet that any such alternative is arising or has some progressive working class content.

What the Haass talks failure tells us about Northern Ireland

bruegel3The failure of the negotiations chaired by the US diplomat Richard Haass is a significant failure. This can be seen for three reasons.

Firstly there was widespread initial expectation that an agreement would be reached – these talks are always carefully choreographed and why else had the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein set it up?  .  Later it was equally widely assumed that some fudge would emerge.  In the event no agreement was reached.

Secondly, all the participants declared that the talks were not a failure; all keen not to be seen to be the party responsible for the failure.  If they were unimportant this would not have mattered.

Lastly their importance can be seen by recognising why they were required in the first place – because the issues they were to deal with have led to a year of low level conflict and proved the last bit of grit that was gumming up the works of the Stormont administration.  Over the last year it has been increasingly impossible to maintain the pretence that the governance put together by the Good Friday Agreement was working even minimally.  Ministers were taking each other to court, the smell of corruption was getting more rancid, meetings were not taking place and one representative from the DUP tweeted her approval of the killing of a fellow Sinn Fein MLA in Government.

The latter was a direct result of the bitterness created by a year of loyalist demonstrations against the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the union flag over City Hall on only designated days instead of all day, every day.  Apparently this was the last straw; a challenge requiring a demand for No Surrender; a provocation that required movement by not an inch; the final step in the war against the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist People; one that required that this people stand in defiance because they could do no other.  In other words this supposedly existential crisis, like every other of Irish loyalism, invites ridicule before everyone is expected to take the grossly exaggerated claims seriously before then being gently told by the British State that they should be accommodated.

The three issues that the talks dealt with were the legacy of the past, flags and emblems, and parading.  The past is not about the past but about the nature of the present.  Flags are the symbols that represent this present and parades are the street-level reality of the symbols.

It was widely reported that the talks collapsed because the most extreme fringe of loyalism  that has been behind the flag protests would not accept a code of conduct for parading, something the DUP and Sinn Fein had previously agreed to in principle.  Such a code might have outlawed paramilitary displays and other unacceptable behaviour.  The unionist parties were not quick to deny this.  The right to parade past Catholic areas by loyalist paramilitaries, while they are also engaged in drug dealing, extortion and intimidation – mostly of the communities they live in, is the apparent reason for the failure of the Haass talks.

There is some truth in this despite what it says about the character of the Northern Ireland State, which cannot function with any sort of consensus because this consensus must reconcile itself to the most blatant displays of naked bigotry.  This cannot be too openly admitted but what we see is the proverbial emperor’s new clothes.

Go to any loyalist parade, say on the 12 July, and you will see serried ranks of smug and arrogant suited men (sometimes women) in bowler hats marching behind temperance banners led by uniformed flute bands, sometimes named after a sectarian killer, playing sectarian tunes to the beat of drums pummelled as violently as it is possible.  Surrounding and following the parades will be hundreds of drunken youths in various stages of stupor.  This is what you see and appearance faithfully corresponds to essence.

Loyalist parades contain the worst of the petty bourgeoisie and what Marx would have called the dangerous classes.  The make up of the latter can be seen in newspaper reports of the court cases dealing with those arrested at loyalist parades.  These include middle aged men miles from home who have sunk enormous quantities of beer and cannot remember what they have done.  They include Scotsmen who couldn’t get enough of their sectarian fix from attendance at Ibrox every two weeks following the new Glasgow Rangers Football club but have to come to Belfast to worship at the Mecca of bigotry.  It includes bandsmen whose reason for failing to stop playing sectarian tunes is that they are so illiterate they could not read the feet-long neon signs put up by the police telling them to stop.

Such classes exist everywhere and are a tribute to the worst aspects of capitalist society.  What differentiates Northern Ireland and makes its politics so incomprehensible to outsiders and so intractable inside is that these classes and their reactionary political representatives are sponsored by the State because they are the most vocal and enthusiastic supporters of the State’s existence.  This is not so much important as vital when the existence of that state is explicitly or implicitly continually in question.

The main force behind the crisis thrown up by the flags dispute has been the Ulster volunteer Force, which must have hundreds of members and a few thousand followers.  It has been repeatedly accused of sponsoring the riots surrounding the dispute, especially in East Belfast, and the conspicuous lack of action by the State’s police force has led even supports of the police to question just exactly what it is up to.  Collusion between the police and loyalist paramilitaries is not so much suspected as assumed and mountains of evidence in the recent past has shown the police arm, direct and facilitate loyalist murder gangs.  Even after massacres of plainly innocent civilians agents of the police responsible have had their payments from the police increased.

Most recently murals on house walls of armed UVF men have been painted while the police claim there is nothing they can do about it unless someone complains.  Such action is of course illegal – try painting your neighbours wall magnolia and you will soon find out.  The approach of the Police Service of Northern Ireland however, if consistently pursued, would leave murder as a legal activity unless the victim made a complaint.

The lack of action has emboldened loyalism.  When they come under some political pressure because of their drug dealing (or shooting of a young woman reported to be an ex-girlfriend of a UVF boss)  the police have issued statements, after much delay, to state that although such and such an attack  was carried out by members of the UVF it had not been sanctioned by the organisation’s leadership.  So that’s all right then.  The police present public alibis for the criminals that the criminals don’t even claim.

Just how they know this is rarely asked and never answered. However it is obvious that only by having agents within the UVF leadership could this be the case.  Since the organisation remains largely intact the only conclusion can be that the agents of the police are not there to destroy this organisation but to bend it to the police’s will and this requires that it continues to exist and exercise the  power that it does.  Loyalist paramilitaries have their uses and these aren’t to help old ladies across roads or collect litter.

I have explained before how relatively small loyalist organisations appear to exercise undue influence on unionism as a whole and in this case the failure of the Haass talk’s is put down to the upcoming electoral cycle in which being the most extreme defender of sectarian privilege is rarely the road to failure.

The talks failed not only on the issue of parades but also on that of flags and dealing with the past.  The past includes what all the previous peace process deals have represented – not an accommodation with nationalism but a recognition that unionism had won and thus simply stepping stones to majority rule within the North and the retrieval of all the sectarian powers unionism once held at Stormont.

Close acquaintance with Sinn Fein has demonstrated to unionism that deals can be broken; republicans arrested, threatened and insulted; their ministers taken to court and prevented from implementing policies of their own, and Sinn Fein will do nothing.  Nothing except agree with the DUP to call in a couple of Americans and watch while that DUP walks away from its own initiative.

The DUP now say that what nationalism has agreed is nothing but the starting point for new negotiations that will shift the result further to the right.  And when the unionists don’t like that street mobilisations, stewarded by the armed forces of the British state, will shift things further right again.

In a society in which over 40 per cent are Catholic and many Protestants are shamed by the antics of the Orange Order and repelled by loyalist paramilitaries this might seem irrational.  It leads only to increased political instability in the State they seek to defend.  Only the accommodating position of the British rulers, who are the real objects of unionist pressure, make this strategy continue to appear to be realistic.  Unionism cannot use a modern day B Specials or army mutiny to directly enforce its demands.  It can only succeed where the British allow it.

The problem for unionism is that the British will accommodate the most extreme loyalist actions when it feels it is necessary, and it will provide for increased loyalist privilege, but it will not provoke a crisis that will exclude nationalists from any role in administering the State.  This role can become smaller and smaller but the Catholic population is not prepared to accept a return to the old Stormont regime and this is what unionism wants.

In this situation Northern nationalism is not an opposition but merely an obstacle.  The difference?  With an opposition the possibility of defeat exists or perhaps retreat.  With merely an obstacle the possibility of victory is always there.  Sooner or later the obstacle might be removed.

There is an opposition but both the British State and loyalism are blessed by its character.  Republicanism, real Irish republicanism in the shape of what is termed the dissidents, is the major opposition to both but they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from a quarter century of armed action.  Such action has not, cannot and will not achieve its aim of destroying partition.

In the past it played a parasitic role on the political struggle, appearing to offer a more militant road to freedom, but ultimately collapsing into the arms of imperialism.  When the gap between its methods and objectives was eventually closed this led not to a re-evaluation of methods but a ditching of the objective.  The building of a united Irish working class movement North and South and within the North itself is therefore a task for socialism.  Only it seeks the liberation of people, the class that will liberate all classes, while republicans seek the liberation of an as yet to exist Irish Republic, in other words a new State machine.

For republicans workers are instruments for revolution while for socialists they are the subject of revolution.  For republicans workers might sometimes be the best fighters for a Republic while for socialists the liberation of workers is the purpose, the means and the objective.

In concrete reality the adherence to militarism by republicans continues to be the alternative that makes the crumbling peace process – that the Haass talks have failed to shore up – attractive.  The prospect of violent political action that substitutes for a political strategy is not at all attractive, except to ideological republicans irreconcilable to British rule and poorer working class Catholics who have gained nothing from the peace process.

This is not an insignificant support but it is not enough to move to a position that threatens British rule.  Instead its actions appear provocative in that they easily allow the British not only to hold them up as the horrible alternative to their own sectarian stew but also to justify whatever repression they consider necessary.  They also provide threadbare cover to loyalist actions.

In this way the armed actions of republicans have only reactionary consequences.  Whether such provocation is meant or is merely considered an acceptable by-product is ultimately of no importance.  The result is the same.  While socialists must continue to debate with those republicans that might listen on their mistaken road of armed action we cannot do so without patiently explaining their failures, the reactionary consequences of their actions and the alternative strategy.

This alternative involves complete opposition to the sectarian parades of the Orange Order, the claims of unionism to sectarian privilege and the protection of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State.

Sectarianism in the North of Ireland and Republicanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nationalism, Sectarianism and Democracy in the North of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

Loyalists riot in Belfast against Republican demonstration

images (3)

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.