Should socialists support a border poll? 3 What sort of Protestant opposition?

I have stated that the purpose of a united Ireland for socialists is not to unite the nation or the territory but to unite the working class.  The Socialist Party opposes a border poll, which might be one way to move in this direction, because it says that the Protestant working class in the North will oppose it and may do so violently.  It has pointed to Protestant opposition expressed in the flags dispute beginning in 2012 as an example of such opposition, opposition which socialists should concede makes the initiative one that will increase sectarian division.

In this post I will look at this opposition and argue that it is not an example of an initiative that socialists should accede to, and certainly should not be presented as an example of the sort of response that should determine socialist views on the way forward, even if by necessity such actions must of course be taken into account.

In effect, what I am saying is that such opposition has no progressive content, should not be conceded to as legitimate barriers to fighting for progressive, democratic and socialist change, and are in fact wholly reactionary.  Rather than bow to them, it is the task of socialists to oppose such mobilisations – these do not constitute resistance reflecting legitimate interests of the working class but are defences of the most virulent division. Rather than being a reason to retreat or stand still, the forces behind the flag dispute are the most diehard defenders of sectarian division, which if it is to be defeated, will mean the defeat of the forces that defend it.  To do otherwise is to capitulate to sectarianism.

The flag dispute began at the beginning of December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag outside the City Hall to 18 designated days, instead of the existing arrangements of flying it every day of the year.  It led to a riot outside the building on the night of the vote by a loyalist crowd, which had been roused to anger by the distribution of 40,000 leaflets by the two main Unionist parties, who claimed that the unionist (with a small u) but self-identified non-sectarian Alliance Party was threatening unionist identity.

This led to a series of protests that involved almost 3,000 ‘occurrences’ according to police, which included demonstrations, riots and assaults on people and property, although no one was actually killed.  At its height it mobilised about 10,000 people at any one time, and in one night involved 84 different sites across the North.  It was therefore pretty widespread if not massively deep.

The mobilisations declined rather quickly, although continued into 2013, the following year, and a ritual demo takes place outside the City Hall every Saturday to this day.  In terms of previous decades of ‘the troubles’ it was small beer, except it was supposed to be after the success of the ‘peace process’ when we were all apparently to be living in a ‘post-conflict’ society.

However, in other respects it was typical of Northern Ireland politics, and therefore a reasonable controversy on which to hang the argument.  It suits the purpose of the Socialist Party position not only because it is relatively recent, no one was killed, and it obviously involved the question of Protestants’ identity as ‘British’, but also because, unlike other expressions of unionist politics in what they see as defence of their rights, which they could have used, such as the protests around the Drumcree Orange parade in the second half of the 1990s or Holy Cross Primary School in 2001, these would have too obviously demonstrated the naked bigotry of what often passes for Protestant defence of their rights.  No one outside the ranks of the bigots could ever be impressed by an assertion of Protestant rights that involves attacking primary school children and their parents going to school.

We don’t however need the worst examples in order to criticise Loyalist politics, and the example of the flag protest is neither ‘the best’ nor the worst.  It is the one that the Socialist Party writer decided to reference and the essential politics involved has wider application than the contingent factors involved in this particular episode.

The policy of flying the flag on designated days was a compromise from an original Sinn Fein proposal not to fly it at all, although Sinn Fein’s later support for the designated days policy could be guaranteed to anger loyalists, even though three councils with unionist majorities were already adhering to designated days before the Belfast council decision.

Policies on flying the flag had already been agreed for Government buildings and in workplaces (were they are prohibited) but not in local government, and the council already had legal advice pointing out the legal risk on grounds of equality legislation in the existing policy of flying the union flag every day.

The Unionist Parties were now in a minority on the council and the balance of power lay with the Alliance Party, which proposed the new designated days motion, and Catholics now constituted a majority in the city – 136,000 against 119,00 Protestants.  The equality and community relations industry was generally sympathetic to this sort of approach and two public meetings, entailed by official consultation on equality impact grounds, was attended at the first by two members of the public and by one at the second.  A petition of almost 15,000 supported existing policy but this was a result of many of the signatures being acquired at a loyalist celebration.

The Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, actually supported the designated days policy in its submission to the consultation, although quickly changed its mind. For some loyalists it is fine if they can determine what does and does not happen, but what does and does not happen cannot be because Catholics have either asked for it or demanded it.  In other words, they have the rights that are allowed to them, which is to say, more strictly and accurately, no rights at all.

In a poll almost three quarters of Catholic Council employees stated that they would be pleased or very pleased if the union flag didn’t fly, while 88 per cent of Protestant staff said they would be displeased or offended.

The successful motion in the council to fly it on only designated days, including on birthdays of members of the royal family, stated that “this reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories . . . it also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.”

When the result of the vote was made known outside the meeting loyalists at the back of the City Hall rioted and attempted to enter the building.  Later, on their way home to East Belfast, they attacked houses in the small Catholic area of Short Strand, which was to become a regular occurrence.

Protests at the City Hall also became a regular occurrence each Saturday, with the first appearing chaotic and without clear leadership, although a number of individual loyalists became recognised spokesmen for the protests if not the actual leaders.  One was Jim Dowson, formerly a member of the British National Party.  At the march round the City Hall protestors sang sectarian songs such as The Sash, the Famine Song and the Glasgow Rangers football ‘Bouncy’ song (if you could call it a song).

Police appeared to facilitate rather than stop protestors in what were illegal protests.  This was later challenged by a resident of the Short Strand, which was initially successful but then lost on appeal, with the judiciary declaring that not preventing illegal parades was within the discretion of the police.  Catholics had earlier argued that the police had used their discretion to arrest Republican protestors in Ardoyne while taking a different approach to loyalists.

The other significant target for the protestors was the property and personnel of the Alliance Party which were attacked and which had been the original target of unionist politicians’ leaflet campaign.  Most of these politicians kept quiet during the period of violent loyalist protest, with a few issuing ritualistic and general condemnations of violence while a few others were openly standing with the protestors.  However, the leadership of unionism was sufficiently rattled by the out-of-control protests for them to call for unity around a Unionist Forum, which included themselves and paramilitary figures, although this outward show of unity did little to dispel the obvious disunity among them.

The protests petered out although continue in a ritualistic form today.  On the first anniversary of the protest 1,500 took part when 5,000 or 10,000 had been predicted, while a year later only 200 showed up.  By this stage loyalists had found a new assault on their identity with the rerouting of a return parade past the shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area.

This did not mean that the cause the loyalists were protesting was not popular among unionists, or even that the protests themselves were unpopular.  An opinion poll shortly after the protests started found that, while among all respondents 44 per cent thought designated days was the correct policy and 35 per cent supported flying the flag all the time, 73 per cent of unionists wanted it up 365 days a year and 64 per cent of nationalists 18 days. While there was majority support (51 per cent) for the right to protest, after nearly two months 76 per cent wanted them to stop, although 45 per cent of unionists wanted them to continue.

A separate poll, as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, found that the designated days policy received the support of 53 per cent of all respondents while 24 per cent supported flying the union flag all the time.  In this poll 48 per cent of Protestants supported the designated days option while 44 per cent supported the 365 days option, although this may reflect the fact that most of this survey was carried out before the decision and protests had started.

A poll taken in August and September 2013, 9 to 10 months after the protests started and then died down – and been replaced to a great extent by those around Orange parades – found that 31 per cent of Protestants supported the all-year policy while only 8 per cent of Catholics did, while 19 per cent of ‘Other’ did, i.e. those who did not identify themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

It is clear that attitudes changed and the strength of Protestant opposition to the erosion of their British identity, as it has been put, was stronger during the height of the protests than after, and involved a more extensive identification of just what this meant during the protests than before.

It is clear that some of the most extreme elements of Protestant politics were involved in the flag protest.  The often primitive and disordered protests were satirised on line, most prominently in the LAD Site (Loyalists Against Democracy).  The originator of the site described how it began:

“I sat down at the computer one night and created a page and gave it this title, Loyalists Against Democracy – I’m trying to be humorous – and I went to bed and when I got up in the morning 50 people had ‘liked’ the page. I mean, I was trying to be as ridiculous as I could be. I posted one page in particular – it wasn’t very funny – complaining about Aer Lingus flying over east Belfast and next morning there were hundreds of comments agreeing with this, each one more vile than the last.”

While this says something of the political character of the flag protest it also throws into relief the approach of the Socialist Party, which wishes to employ this episode as justification for emasculating a socialist approach and acceptance of limits imposed by the most primitive unionism. Essentially the Party argues that those most wedded to reactionary sectarian politics must be conciliated in pursuit of defeating this politics.

In the next post in this series I will look at some of the implications of this.

Back to Part 2

Sectarianism in Belfast. What’s new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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