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.

Can Ulster Unionism be left wing?

Flags of the Left?

In this week’s Belfast nationalist paper ‘the Irish News’ their regular columnist Brian Feeney put forward the claim that Protestant unionist workers had been duped into believing that being left wing was also to be ‘disloyal’.  Presumably these workers can therefore be left wing and ‘loyal’.   Indeed this is the thinking behind recent proposals within the United Left Alliance to build a “new mass working-class party in Northern Ireland to unite the working class against sectarian division and against the right-wing austerity of the Assembly Executive.”

An obvious objection to the ULA proposal is that it claims to stand for workers unity while accepting the division of workers created by partition.  The only way this can be justified is by accepting unionist claims that such workers unity should not exist.

A smarter unionist might claim that the unity of Irish workers would break the unity of the workers in Northern Ireland with those in Britain.  The problem of course is that Irish workers unity is sacrificed for a unity that does not exist.  There is in reality no genuine UK workers unity because most British workers regard those from Belfast, Derry and Enniskillen as Irish.  No carnival of reaction predicted before, and confirmed afterwards, by partition is likely upon the separation of the North of Ireland from Britain.

So we are back to the repeated collapse of what often passes for socialism in Ireland before the veto on workers unity demanded by unionism.  If such unionism is inherently and unavoidably reactionary then it is clear that such a veto should be rejected.  It might only be accepted if it could be credibly claimed that Feeney is right – Protestant workers are merely duped into believing that being left wing is also to be ‘disloyal’.

Unfortunately Feeney gives enough examples of the reactionary character of real unionism, as opposed to the pretend hypothetical unionism that at no time and nowhere has existed, to demonstrate that a different sort will never exist.  He records the mass expulsions of Catholic workers from the shipyards by sectarian unionist mobs in 1912 and 1920 when around 2,000 were expelled in the former year and thousands more in the second.  Crucially he also notes that 500 Protestant workers were also expelled in 1912 and 1,800 in 1920.  These were ‘rotten Prods’ who failed to demonstrate their true credentials by not being bigots.

Feeney notes that these Protestant workers refused to put an ‘ethnic’ solidarity, in reality a sectarian solidarity, in front of any other.  Some supporters of the ULA are presumably content that Protestant workers can accept this sectarian solidarity while being ‘left wing’.  If they did not put this sort of sectarian solidarity first then there could in principle be no objection to proposals for the unity of the whole Irish working class.  Proposals within the ULA that avoid this conclusion are in practice accepting that sectarian identity must be accepted and accommodated.  In other words sectarianism must be accepted and accommodated.  Protestations to the contrary can in reality be dismissed.  Political positions have consequences and in this case these are quite clear.

Feeney records the words of Peter Robinson of the DUP that ‘the unionists of Ulster were a distinct people entitled to determine their own future.’  Since the most right wing forces will always be the most vigorous defenders of this position acceptance of it necessarily means acceptance of the leadership of Protestant workers by the most reactionary bigots.

As to the cogency of Robinson’s claims – the unionists of Ulster were happily the unionists of Ireland until they could no longer garrison it all whereupon they then demanded not that they determine their own future but that the imperialist power did.  This then amounted to the seizure of both more than the territory within which they were a comfortable majority and less than would include all the Ulster unionist people they claimed they were.  The character of the movement that expressed this people politically became evident when it came to determining not their own future but that of the large Catholic minority they took with them.  This minority was subject to sectarian pogroms and systematic discrimination for nearly half a century before a civil rights movement exposed the irreformibilty of this unionist movement.

We can go back to Feeney’s claim that Protestant workers have been duped into believing that being left wing is ‘disloyal’.  It is obvious that they have not.  For what is it that unionism claims that there must be loyalty to?  Loyalty to what?  Well – to Queen and country!  To a monarchy and an imperialist power.  To partition and division.  To a state based on a sectarian head count.  To the rights and privileges of Robinson’s ‘distinct people’.

How could you possibly be left wing without being disloyal to all that?

Apologists on the left for capitulation to unionism put forward the final argument that we must accept unionism because the vast majority of Protestant workers are unionists.  In fact it is this very fact that makes opposition to partition absolutely necessary.  Opposition to partition is not necessary despite the unionism of Protestant workers but because of it.  It is not possible to break their commitment to this reactionary political programme without defeating it and it can only be definitively defeated by destroying the state power on which it bases its power.

How deep is the division created by partition?

In an article in the ‘Irish Times’ a couple of weeks ago Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and a former Irish Times journalist, takes up the observation that “interest among people in the Republic these days in Northern Ireland is minimal.”  “As somebody who lives in the South and works in the North, my experience in recent years, as the economic and financial crisis has come to dominate public discourse, is that southerners largely don’t want to know any more.”  Since previous interest was taken mainly to be revulsion at the violence and gratitude that it was “up there” and not “down here” this might not seem a new issue.  In fact both reflect how deep is the division that partition has created after nearly a century of existence.

Pollak quotes the young woman in the audience of the RTÉ Frontline programme during last October’s presidential campaign who attacked Martin McGuinness: “As a young Irish person, I am curious as to why you have come down here to this country, with all your baggage, your history, your controversy? And how do you feel you can represent me, as a young Irish person, who knows nothing of the Troubles and who doesn’t want to know anything about it?”

First we must say that this is indeed a strong illustration of the division that exists between North and South of the border; all the stronger because of the happy ignorance that is displayed.  On the other hand this happy ignorance demonstrates that the division which she articulates is really an expression of the unity that she is so ignorant of.

Happy ignorance?  Well yes.  The young woman speaks of coming “down here to this country” which is actually the same country, while being a different state.  She mentions “all your baggage, your history, your controversy” without appearing to be aware that the State she lives in shares much of this baggage, history and controversy.  After all, is she not aware of the history that includes the War of Independence, the Civil War (mainly in the South) and baggage that includes Catholic Church domination of society that involved systematic and widespread abuse of thousands of women and children that still resonates today?  Is she not aware that ‘the troubles’ had its worst single episode of violence in the Southern State carried out partly by agents of the British State?  Happy in her ignorance because she herself declares she “knows nothing of the Troubles and . . . doesn’t want to know anything about it.”

The disconnect between this young woman’s understanding and real history is perhaps an example of the invention of nations that don’t exist, or sometimes later do come into existence.

Pollak says that “opinion polls over the past decade or so show that a bare majority of people in the Republic now say they want a united Ireland: for example, in the 1999-2000 European Values Survey, just 54 per cent of people favoured unity.”  He quotes one University College Dublin student as saying: “Neither of us want Northern Ireland: neither us nor the UK government. I’d say if you asked the majority of Irish people – yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.  I mean, to integrate Northern Ireland into this State – why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”

Let’s take this statement bit by bit as well. The UK state doesn’t want Northern Ireland?  A very common opinion but one that is impossible to square with the experience of the British State spending billions of pounds and engaging in a long counter-insurgency campaign in order precisely to keep hold of the Northern State.  We will not go into the reason why here but let us recall that Britain left previous parts of empire extremely reluctantly.  Why hasn’t it left this bit if it actually wants to in this case?

So “yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.”  What trouble might this be?  Well we know that just as partition was imposed on the Irish side of the Treaty negotiations on the basis of the threat of immediate and terrible war so we know that partition today must be unquestioned because of the perceived threat of loyalist violence.  A loyalist violence that the last thirty years have shown the British State is quite happy to support and sponsor.

Uniting Ireland? “Why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”  This is the decisive question.  Let’s start from the end and go to the start – “the status quo satisfies everyone.”  This is the status quo that includes the literal bankruptcy of the Irish State and its admitted loss of sovereignty over its economic affairs.  The more or less complete loss of respect and legitimacy of fundamental pillars of the Southern State – politicians, Catholic Church and crucial State institutions.  Yet  “the status quo satisfies everyone!!?”

I would bet that many UCD students are very far from satisfied with the status quo but that they don’t see their dissatisfaction with the Southern State as having anything to do with partition.  If it’s not part of the problem then why would opposition to partition be seen as part of the solution?  What we have is graphic demonstration of the division of the Irish people that partition has caused that satisfaction is expressed in a State which many are in despair of because its problems are not seen as having anything to do with the other bit of the country divided.

That the domination of the Southern State by outside powers, who have dictated that their banks must be protected by the Irish people bailing them out, is not connected at all with the political rule in the North of the foremost political power in Europe most enmeshed with banking is the result of a number of factors.

The first is that such is the seeming power of these outside forces they seem almost like a force of nature, or if not, then an unalterable fact of life.  The second is that when there has been opposition either to the Northern State or to how the Southern State exploits its citizens this opposition has made no attempt to link the two questions.  The third is the more or less complete absence of any force that wants to do this.

Instead workers have been able to react only to the more immediate appearances of their oppression. This appearance is framed as a political question by the State, which is often the mechanism for enforcing it and sometimes by the putative opposition putting forward the state under different governance as the solution to oppression.

This importance of the state in distorting socialist politics has been a theme of the blog so far.  For most people, including what passes for militant opposition, the necessity of fighting two States is one too many.  In fact consistently fighting one is one too many.  That is how deep the division created by partition is.