Loyalists riot in Belfast against Republican demonstration

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By Belfast Plebian

Yesterday I decided to participate in an anti-internment demonstration in Belfast. I could not get to the starting point so thought to join at the midpoint in central Belfast.  The demo I think was organised to do three things: to commemorate the August 1971 introduction of imprisonment without trail, to highlight the continuation of the same policy by less conspicuous means, imprisonment for long stretches of time under the guise of waiting for a trial date; internment on remand, and finally the abuse of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in other ‘special facilities’.

I am not big on the commemoration thing, a street demonstration is a very inferior way of coming to a coherent understanding of past political events, however the other two are very important just now because the democratic rights of common people are under sustained attack in the countries that first originated them, namely in the United States, France and Britain.

The comprehensive attack on democratic rights is turning into something ever more serious in most bourgeois democracies.  Just last month the British Government passed into law something called the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA). The key provision creates a new procedure to permit the use of secret evidence and testimony against a defendant in any civil case in the UK.  The new measure constitutes yet another negation of the democratic rights of the individual in relation to the powers of the State.

The new provision is called ‘a closed material procedure’ (CMP) and it means that a defendant’s barrister will have no right to question the evidence against a client if the CMP procedure is invoked by the State.  The new courts will also now have the power to make use of evidence against defendants not previously disclosed to their legal team.

The JSA is a response to the case of Binyam Mohammed, a British citizen who was detained at Guantanamo. His legal team had forced a civil action against the British government for being complicit in his torture in 2011 and evidence came to light in court that showed that British police agents had secretly assisted in his torture and rendition.  The judge in the case had ruled that the secret police material was admissible. Now this sort of secret evidence is to be totally closed to viewing.

The new act is a change to the already highly restrictive Public Interest Immunity procedure frequently used during the ‘troubles’ to keep evidence of crimes committed by the security forces from legal examination.  From now on, even the presiding judge in a case will no longer have a say on what kind of evidence can be scrutinised by a jury.  It means the abandonment of civil courts presided over by judges in favour of political courts manipulated government officials against selected defendants.  In the closed material procedure only the government and its lawyers will be present before the judge.  The defendant and their lawyer will not be present in court, they will not be permitted to see the evidence being presented if it depends on ‘sensitive security material’. Also the defendant is not entitled to know the reasons why the judge came to a decision. The Act is to apply to ‘all relevant civil proceedings’ in the High Court, Court of Appeal, Court of Sessions and the Supreme Court. The above is just one way by which the rights of people are being curtailed by government.

The problem you always have to deal with when defending basic democratic rights in the North of Ireland is that those who do so are habitually associated with republican inspired anti- British feeling, not just by the State officials but by the organised part of political Unionism. So as I strode into the city centre the first thing I noticed was a very large number of angry loyalists gathered at one end of Royal Avenue, who were obviously hell bent on preventing a so called ‘dissident republican’ march from getting into their beloved British city centre.

They had been gathering for hours and had reached two thousand strong by about six o’clock. I wondered why there were so few police officers on duty, only a tiny fraction of the number that had been on duty for the G8 demo and I wondered why so many loyalists had been allowed to gather unhindered on the very street that the anti-internment demo was supposed to pass along.

I mingled with the loyalists for about an hour; the mood was ugly and the loyalists looked well up for a street battle. A riot then kicked into full swing when the police asked some loyalists to move into a designated zone behind a makeshift barrier consisting of a handful of police land rovers. It was pretty obvious that there would be no anti-internment rally passing down Royal Avenue this evening.  The loyalists were by now in full riot mode, getting tore into the police at close quarters, tossing bricks and bottles.

It was very striking just how many loyalists had turned out to stop what they considered to be a provocation by the ‘other side’ from holding a small political demonstration. The ‘other side’ were the despised Irish republican enemy without any equivocation or qualification. To be honest it has hard to see how the loyalists present could ever be reconciled to the State granting the same right to free assembly for republicans and reds in a city that they maintain is exclusively British and monarchist.

It does not look good for the ‘shared future’, with so many alienated loyalists regularly attacking the PSNI on the streets.  The DUP and the Unionist Party are clearly feeling a rising pressure to resile from the rather forced agreement they made with Sinn Fein called the Good Friday Agreement.

The British government on its part has no big idea or plan to settle things with the loyalists. The big idea of bourgeois democracy I believe includes a principle best articulated by Abe Lincoln in the famous Gettysburg Address, that in a democracy in contrast to a monarch- aristocracy ‘all men are created equal’: meaning they are all entitled to the same constitutional rights as something universal.

Bourgeois democracy is built on two platforms: free and fair elections leading to a democratic government and universal democratic rights. Ulster Unionism currently bows down to only the one platform of bourgeois democracy, the free and fair elections platform part, and even this is qualified by the anti-democratic forced partition of 1920

When the great majority of Irish nationalists voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement it surely indicated that they were now ready to treat partition as an accidental error and not a terrible historical grievance perpetuated against them. They believed that by dropping the Irish constitutional articles on sovereignty, this act of political humility would be enough to lend a necessary democratic legitimacy to a perpetually insecure Unionism that would be great enough to allow for a future of peace and equality.

But Unionism accepted the offer ever so reluctantly and made no corresponding provision for Lincoln’s universal rights; unionist democracy just stayed thinking and behaving as in the past; an elected government should mean majority rule, and we the Protestants are the majority and our rights must come first. It should be recalled that the majority of unionists actually opposed the initial Trimble made Good Friday Agreement.

Majority rule was in fact the democratic cry of the Southern Confederacy; those states commanded a popular majority in favour of maintaining things as they stood, and in 1860 this so happened to include slavery.  The best of them who were not slave owners fought in the name of a democratic majority rule, a right of self- government in the seven and then eleven Southern States.  In their minds Lincoln was the opponent of democracy, the Tyrant of the Federal Union. The task of educating the American people in 1860 as to the essence of bourgeois democracy, that it was about more than not just having an elected government but was also about universal rights fell to Lincoln. The example of the American Confederacy is good reason why self-government in the name of a majority is not always for the better.

I am not suggesting that British Unionism in Ireland is in favour of slavery; in fact it has always favoured free wage labour and private property.  What I am suggesting is that it has no stomach for digesting the bourgeois principle that all men are created equal, and this is at the very heart of the matter and largely explains why there is so little of what is termed normal democratic politics to be seen in the here and now.

It should be said, this is not unique to Ireland, it appears almost everywhere in variations.  Across the Middle East the overthrowing of the military dictatorships in Iraq, Libya, Egypt were superseded by democracies that insisted on the unalloyed sectarian viewpoint of the majority must rule, there is no room for universal democratic rights. Marxists in particular need constant reminding that just getting to the normal state of bourgeois democracy and keeping it going is a massive undertaking in itself.

Karl Marx in1860 thought that if the side of Lincoln were defeated it would be a massive blow to the historical advance of the working class in Europe.  Leon Trotsky argued in 1933 that the smashing of bourgeois democracy in Germany would be a much greater blow to the international working class than the Stalinists at that time imagined. It is all too easy to downgrade the democratic rights side of the socialist programme in pursuit of the maximum or even the transitional demands of the socialist programme.

I decided to move away from the town centre and try and join up with the anti-internment demo at another place. I was told that the demo would most likely be rerouted along Millfield, a street that connects North Belfast to the lower Falls Road. As I took to my heels the police decided to do a pincer on the hundred or so mainly nationalist youths still standing at the juncture of Castle Street and Royal Avenue. They came at us from two directions and forced us up into Castle Street.

It was then that the nationalists realised their chance of joining the demo in the city centre was gone for this time. Some of them began chanting the familiar old anti police slogan SS-RUC, others mentioned groundhog day and moved away – the police had capitulated in the face of loyalist fury said others.  I walked up to Millfield and waited and waited without really knowing what was happening, the wait lasted for a couple of hours

Eventually, at about nine o’clock the head of the demo appeared, it was a substantial demo of about 1800 people; they looked tired but not demoralised.  The 300 hundred or so people waiting for them to arrive cheered and clapped like supporters standing at a football match. They joined the demonstration and it proceeded to snake its way up the Falls Road to the final destination point in Andersonstown.

I did not stay to listen to the speeches; I guessed they would be of a traditional republican hue something that I have heard many times before. I had still some walking to do to get back home, the buses were not operating, it was eleven thirty when I finally made it back to the house, an intended hour spent at a demo had turned into a seven hour marathon. 

Making a political assessment of the significance of the demo is a little more difficult than with loyalism. The demo was the biggest one that has occurred in Belfast organised by diverse republican and residents groups not aligned to Sinn Fein. The very subjective impression I got was that those on and those supporting the demo were drawn mainly from the very poorest segment of Belfast society, the loyalists gathering was composed of working class people too but they looked more prosperous in their general appearance.

They were certainly the sort of working class people who in earlier days used to be solid behind the IRA and Sinn Fein. The fact that Sinn Fein has lost some of its urban working class support is not that significant in electoral terms because the party has definitely replaced that support with those who used to be sympathetic to the political party of steady decline the SDLP.

A feature worth mentioning is the age profile, previous republican demos that I have witnessed were staffed by well seasoned not to say aging types; the bulk of the people on this one were under 30. What was positive was a genuine will not to get drawn into a sectarian street battle with loyalists. One young republican that I spoke to was worried that loyalists had come out to block their way. Why, he asked, do loyalists fight against things like demanding an end to interment on demand, something that oppresses them as much as it does us?

I think the organisers of the demonstration will be pleased with what they got and they will likely try to build on it by staging more of the same. However it might still be the case that the marked increase in the numbers of young people participating may actually just be a response to the rising tide of loyalist provocations generated by more and more loyalist street activities. It is too early to say if this represents a turning point against Sinn Fein within the old core republican community.  

A couple of other things are worthy of note. I have listened to a good number of nationalists speak well of the PSNI of late for standing up to loyalist threats of violence, a nationalist expectation that the police will continue to perform well may well lead to a big let down in the near future with unpredictable consequences for those politicians who are trusting them the most.

It was also evident that there were no socialist currents either on the parade or around the fringes.  They have abandoned all thought of unfulfilled democratic tasks in pursuit of socialism for today, or rather what they consider to be socialism.  The assessment they make of the recalcitrant republicans is one they hold in common with hired pundits who work for the capitalist owned press; that they are dreadful atavistic nationalists whose time has thankfully gone.

I don’t really share this mode of thought because it is too undifferentiated; all of the recalcitrant republicans are not unthinking militarists. ‘The Irish News’ referred to all involved as ‘dissident republicans’ but it was certainly more diverse than that expression suggests. Today basic democratic rights are being shredded all too readily, the prospect for socialist advances are very poor in both Ireland and Britain and politics at this time of austerity is favouring the right wing rather than the left wing – just look at the advance of UKIP compared to the abject failures of the socialists to the left of the labour Party.

The pressures of being in government for the foreseeable future are sure to test an inexperienced Sinn Fein’s capacity for political survival and in the absence of anything even vaguely resembling a socialist movement in the North of Ireland the social conditions may well favour a surprising republican revival.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal? Part 2

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

By Belfast Plebian

Episode two commenced after the Assembly was recalled for a one-day public debate on the developing scandal on July 8th.Once more it was down to Jim Allister to make most of the running, alleging that Red Sky had carried out work on the homes and offices of DUP members and that they even had the gall to charge some of the costs to the Assembly.  He tried to arrange for a motion calling for McCausland’s to be put up for vote but was rebuffed by Sinn Fein who wanted a less severe motion to be voted on.

It was also alleged that Nelson McCausland had an improper relationship with Turkington Holdings, a Portadown based firm that specialises in windows, doors and conservatory installations. The allegation was that he had agreed to delay the ongoing work by other rival firms with a view to favouring Turkington on the grounds of cost.  Before making his suspension order it was alleged that he met with Turkington, the chair of witch is a DUP member. But the heart of the second episode came down to final the motion and vote.

The motion asked that Mr McCausland step aside while the inquiry into the matter by the DSD committee was being carried out.  It also noted that the Minister may have purposely misled both the Assembly and the committee. The motion drawn up by Sinn Fein was supported by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Allaince  plus the Greens and the new Unionist Party NI21. The motion collapsed even though 54 members voted for it and 32 voted against. This outcome was possible due to a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern. It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion or law they feel is discriminatory, the DUP with 38 MLAs is the only party that can do this without votes from others.   

The reaction to the petition of concern in the press was interesting because for the first time there was a feeling of genuine alarm about the Stormont settlement that had been strongly endorsed from day one of the ‘peace process’. The political analysis in ‘The Irish News’ was pessimistic; the headline banner on the day after the DUP move to block the censure motion read ‘It was a bad day for democracy.

The writer feared that the clause that was supposed to prevent sectarian majority rule was now being used to further it: ‘ Power sharing may be the concept the devolved institutions are built on but it seems power ultimately resides with the party that can consistently muster 30 signatures and lodge a petition of concern whenever it is unhappy with a particular assembly motion. The upshot is therefore not democracy but an inverted form of majoritarianism. It’s a system that leaves the majority party in a position where it can overrule the rest of the assembly even when outnumbered two-to-one.’

‘The Irish News’ editorial was a little less stark but still pessimistic, the final paragraph read ‘Many observers will have concluded that standards at Stormont have declined to a stage where basic democratic values have been largely abandoned in the interests of expediency. There will be little public confidence that the truth over Red Sky will ever be established property but it is the wider reputation of our key intuitions that is increasingly under the spotlight.’    

As for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, their next day front page stated; ‘This was a bad day for democracy’ the three sub headings were ‘debate on Red Sky scandal ends with no action’, ‘parties in the pockets of big business-claim’and ‘Assembly rules misused by DUP to stifle debate.’ The editorial was less pessimistic making the argument that the petition of concern could be fixed: ‘Although the motion gained cross-party and cross-community support in the Assembly it was defeated by a petition of concern, a piece of political trickery which is meant to stop minorities being ridden roughshod over, which is increasingly is used by all parties if they find themselves in trouble. It is clear that thisparticular manoeuvre will have to be rethought as it is now being misused.’

The job of expressing the fears and frustrations of the small group of reformers who had hoped for a gradual transformation out of a sectarian conflict was left to Robin Wilson the one time editor of Fortnight Magazine ; ‘The Red Sky  episode is a flashing red light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland. It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption, which, if notaddressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.’

At least Robin Wilson acknowledged in his article that the outrageous behaviour had a lot more to do with sectarian partisanship than with corruption, the last paragraph of his article stated: ‘the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order. The new one looks dispiritingly similar.’  

We should not pass by the media reaction without mentioning one other perspective on the Red Sky affair; three days after the Stormont travesty the Belfast Telegraph carried an analysis by trade union socialist Eamonn McCann, presumably to get an alternative viewpoint. The banner of his article was ‘Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation.’

Mr McCann stated the proposition he was out to prove in his opening paragraph ‘None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn’t been privatised. No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland,s office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer  phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine week summer holiday

Little thought is required to refute Mr McCann’s proposition, having public control over a central Housing Authority is a good thing provided at least one condition is fulfilled, namely that those in control are socialists.  If those in charge are sectarians, racists or state capitalists then if anything it is a worse arrangement than having it in many private hands.  Unfortunately those taking charge in this case are not socialists and may even be sectarian.

Comment and Explanation

We can certainly say that the Red Sky scandal represents something more than a scandal and something less than a political crisis. It is a mini crisis of the peace process, something that is hard to disguise. The first instinct of all of those in thrall to the peace process was to disguise it as a corruption scandal, a case of one party, the DUP seeking to do financial favours for the owners of a couple of small firms that happen to back the party.  The pro-agreement media was therefore content to run behind Jim Allister for he seemed to have enough inside information to make the corruption charge stick. The sectarian substance was reduced to a secondary quality

What might have come out of this allegation was a routine resignation of a wayward politician in an otherwise stable Executive. One small problem was that another DUP minister would have replaced the sacked one and we would have merely carried on from the point we had left i.e. the programme of dismantling the Housing Executive. Then the realisation dawned on some people that the minister had no intention of resigning because his party had no intention of letting little things like democratic norms get in the way of staying in charge of the big spending departments of government. The DUP standpoint was No Surrender to our critics!

The pro-agreement media began to wonder if the current political arrangements might make it impossible to address wrongdoing not only by the odd maniacal politician but entire maniacal political parties. It was kind of expected that an exposed politico would be cut loose by his own party. One step behind the fear of unaccountable financial corruption lurks of course the longer and deeper fear of sectarian competition over the spoils of government

Pro-agreement nationalist political opinion now realised that the safeguards they had long thought they had secured against bad government were not as sound as they had believed. They now had to face up to the fact that it is an anti-power sharing sectarian party they have to deal with in government and not some reformed unionist party. On the other side, the pro-agreement unionists had to confront the fact that you only need 30 votes to carry on like the DUP does when in government and Sinn Fein have 29 votes and destined to get past the magic number in the near future.

Pro-agreement unionists, who are in fact a minority within unionism, have zero confidence in Sinn Fein not doing the same thing as the DUP. Sinn Fein have been less strident about the scandal over procurement contracts than others expected; the party refused to accept an amendment to their own weak motion of censure as phrased by Jim Allistar calling for the resignation of McCausland.  Knowing what one knows about the building trade in nationalist political constituencies it is easy to conclude that they would not be too keen on a thorough going inspection and clean up themselves. They are up for an inquiry all right so all as it is confined to Red Sky.

We predict the two big political parties will continue on much as before, jockeying for position and biting into sectarian patronage and running down the public purse to no good end. The Orange Order, to give one example, is now subsidised like it wasn’t in the halcyon days of one party Orange rule; it receives money for its decorous band uniforms, to buy musical instruments, to pay for music lessons and there are more bands than ever. The local government even funds the bonfires, which used to be stuck up by nothing-to-do summer youths – now they are professional affairs put together by men using heavy machinery,  The mural painting of walls is also funded.

The Orange Order is renovating itself and building up a heritage with European Peace money to the tune of £7 million.  As for the paymaster of sectarianism in London, the real government has so far kept shtum and if things come to a breakdown they will invite in a prominent American to recommend some institutional changes probably along the line suggestion by the Belfast Telegraph i.e. make it harder for the main political parties to draw on a petition of concern to block a cross community majority vote. 

There is a mini crisis of confidence facing many of those well-educated professionals currently staffing the Public Sector. These people like to think of themselves as untouched by low-down sectarian squabbles. The Spotlight programme threw up a number of side issues that point in this direction.

It was pointed out in the programme that the first people to come under pressure was not the Housing Executive Chairman but the housing inspectors who had refused to give a pass to Red Sky’s shoddy work . The group development manager of Red Sky, one Pauline Gazzard, felt confident enough to write a letter to a senior Housing Executive manager with the expectation that the inspectors’ reports against Red Sky, put together by a conscientious district officer Gary Ballentine, an elder in the Presbyterian church, would be brushed aside: ‘It is also considered necessary to re-iterate our deep concern in relation to certain personalities who remain working in the West Belfast District Office and we trust appropriate actions will be taken to address this in the near future.’

The letter is address to a senior Housing Executive manager but was never seen by the Board or the Chairman when they were investigating the matter; the three West Belfast inspectors were in fact removed and sent elsewhere. What is abundantly clear is that senior managers at the Housing Executive were depriving the Board and the chairman of very relevant information.

The report that the chairman commissioned and delivered in 2011 discovered that 80% of the charging made by Red Sky was questionable. The upshot was that 8 managers were disciplined and some others retired early for allowing the overcharging to go on. The question to be pondered – were they in receipt of bribes or were they making a calculation that it would not be wise to rock the sectarian boat

If we next move on to the police, they have been asked three times to investigate matters pertaining to Red Sky.  Once in 2006 when several lesser Housing Executive workers were found to be taking gifts from Red Sky, no charges were preferred then.  The second time when Chairman Rowntree provided them with the evidence of criminal wrong doing in 2011, the evidence that was used to terminate the £7 million annual contract, and again the police sat on their hands.  Finally the Spotlight team asked the police were they thinking of opening up a new investigation; they replied not without evidence.

But if there was no evidence how come the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly says that ‘ a sample of 20 kitchen replacement schemes (out of a total of 242 schemes undertaken to date) found overpayments of £1.3 million out of a total cost for all schemes examined of £6.2 million. The potential total contractor overpayment since 2008 is estimated at around £18 million’

And there was other evidence; it came from Pauline Gazzard who no longer works for Red Sky/Totalis. When the administrator took over the running of Red Sky she wrote a 13-page letter to BDO explaining that she knew for a fact that the company she formerly worked for had bribed at least three procurement officers from the Housing Executive. The Spotlight reporter said ‘We asked the police ifthey had the letter now would they act on it now-they refused to comment.’

The Spotlight reporter then asked the Housing Executive Chairman, who had been keen to have the police involved, about the seeming lethargy of the police investigation and his reply was ‘I am absolutely gobsmacked’.   Then we have the administrators at BDO; Pauline Gazzard told Spotlight that she was surprised BDO showed no interest in her letter or her allegations. Not only that, BDO did not pass the information she gave them on to the Board of the Housing Executive or the police. When asked about the matter BDO claimed client confidentially meant they could not comment.

Here’s the rub. Did one small building firm have so much sway, over senior Housing Executive managers, over the police, over accountants and insolvency professionals, over politicians and then over the Head of the Government because of its economic weight, after all it was hardly BP or Shell Oil or is there another explanation?

The other explanation is a bit crude and may even sound offensive to some ears. The firm’s managers knew how to play the sectarian playbook to make other people quake a little.  The firm was quick to blame the Catholic residents for making false complaints, and then they said the inspectors were bigots even though this was patently untrue.  They then attacked the chairman of the Housing Executive indicating he was a dodgy nationalist, then they encouraged their work force to picket the offices of the Housing Executive, carrying banners with slogans like the Housing Executive is anti-Protestant, and finally they told the DUP that the firm had done no wrong and was being starved of work contracts because it was believed to be Protestant.

All those who stepped aside for Red Sky did so because they were conscious of the sectarian clouds that sit low and heavy over society. The politics is sectarian because the society is sectarian. What is more the sectarian cloud cover is thickening rather than dispersing due to the fact that sectarian politicians are taking over the basic departments of government. As for those working under the new dispensation, things are about to get a bit more complicated and choking.

In the more recent past, if you were a public sector professional you only had to contend with a subdued sectarianism, the police and the Northern Office of course was something different, now it is back and it is naked and outspoken.  What is even more disconcerting, the really green nationalists want you to bend in their direction too, overlook this misdemeanour, override a professional service protocol when instructed to do so by somebody with political connections.  How the hell do you bend in two sectarian directions at once?  Do you decide to bend with the Orange 60 per cent of the time and then bend with the Green the other 40 per cent?

The relationship between the relatively privileged professional classes who number a fair number and the sectarian society is about to get a bit more fraught. We can see clear evidence of this emerging from this case.  McCausland decided to wage a vendetta against the Chairman of the Housing Executive, so he asked for some evidence to get at his target.  Two senior DSD civil servants accompanied him to the infamous meeting with the Red Sky management at Stormont; the minutes of that meeting read like a party political conspiracy.  Is this what civil servants should be doing?

The DSD permanent secretary is busy trying to get Brian Rowntree removed from his other public service job with the civil service commissioners’ according to Spotlight he got his staff to trawl through thousands of e-mails hoping to find incriminating evidence against Rowntree.  What a truly poisonous atmosphere.

If a government department supervised by a political Orangeman hounds a career civil servant out of his post, will a department run by a Nationalist respond in kind, if you take out one of ours we will take out one of yours?  Legal threats are flying about left, right and centre.  No wonder the Spotlight programme began by saying that many people ‘we spoke to were scared to speak on the record.’ Most of these people were of the professional class. Welcome to the future sectarian society!  Mandy McAuley the girl that kicked the hornet’s nest.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal?

Housing Executive 2.jpg

BY Bellfast Plebian 

A little while ago (Jan 2013) this blog singled out Nelson MaCausland, a Minister in the stored Northern Ireland Executive, as a target for criticism.  This was no random selection of a minister in an improbable regional government that we happen to have little respect for. Nelson was a bit of a special case because he was the minister most likely to cause a commotion.

It was asserted that this neo-conservative Orangeman is about the least preferable person you could hope for in charge of managing the socially damaging CON-DEM policy of comprehensive welfare reform. We were sure his approach would be to offer minimum resistance to the drastic changes being proposed.  We were especially worried that he had been given overarching control over the Northern Ireland Housing Executive: the publicly funded organisation specifically mandated to allocate social housing on the basis of objective need rather than community and religious patronage.  The Minister we said was so ardent an evangelic Protestant and a strident Orangeman that he would be inclined to put the interest of promoting his own religious community above the important non-sectarian consideration that pertains to the neutral role required of a housing minister. Well it didn’t take very long for our worries about Nelson to be confirmed – the bomb exploded earlier than we anticipated – and a few days after we posted our account he began his political assault on the very existence of the Housing Executive.

At first Nelson’s spat with the Housing Executive was carefully phrased in the all too familiar neo-liberal one of saving the taxpayer money. The Housing Executive is managed and funded on the model of a department of the British Civil Service and because it is not classified as belonging to the private sector economy it is therefore almost by definition deemed to be inefficient and wasteful of taxpayer money by the major accountancy firms that aspire to set the standards for every social service. The new Housing Executive will work all the better if it is broken up and placed in the hands of Housing Associations that know the realities of private sector finance, so claimed Nelson.

Hardly anyone of influence objected to Nelson’s declared programme of privatisation barring a few union leaders that voiced worries over potential redundancies. To most tender minded folk (folk is the favoured term used by Nelson) the reasoning if not impeccable was at least normative for our current economic condition. More tough-minded types wondered if Nelson’s impeccable reasoning was merely a convenient cover to pursue an old style Orange vendetta against the Housing Executive. In certain quarters the Housing Executive is still thought of as an anti-Orange institution, something that was imposed on Orange society against its interest, a concession made in the past by a nervous Labour government running scared of the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign.

There is a certain type of Orangeman who resents the very existence of the Housing Executive, who would like to see it done too death.  I am certainly one of those dwindling number of suspicious types who still believe that there are plenty of unreformed Orangeman around, dreaming of taking back the little victories of the civil rights movement.  I suspected that Nelson was one of those unreformed Orangeman who was bent on returning to a long standing sectarian battle over the political control of social housing and I was aroused by the fact that Nelson was only into the job a few weeks when he began asking for the religious make up of the workforce, right down to the numbers in individual offices. Was he of the viewpoint that the Housing Executive had a pinko-management and a Catholic majority work force representing an earlier victory for the sectarian enemy?  Was he out to knock it of its previously set course?  I felt that he was one government minister that needed watching.

Last week the BBC Spotlight programme (3/7/2013) provided us with an insight into what Nelson’s real agenda had been since he became the social development minister.  Before the Spotlight programme was broadcast you could see the aura of hubris already taking shape around Nelson’s head.  On June 10 he had given the management of the Housing Executive a real roasting on the floor of the Assembly; all sorts of charges were flung against the former chairman Brian Rowntree.  He accused the Housing Executive of overspending on repair contracts to the tune of £18 MILLION on four contracts. He also said that one contractor Red Sky had been singled out by the Chairman for retribution for overcharging solely because it was perceived to be a Protestant firm. The unionist benches erupted with shouts of shame on the sectarian Housing Executive. What was also striking about Nelson’s performance was the pleasure he took in laying into the management of the Housing Executive and the satisfaction he got from seeing that the non-unionist parties offering only palliative opposition to his new plan to break up and privatise the public housing body.

Just four weeks later Nelson’s confidence took a punishing blow at the hands of a BBC television expose on what he had been doing out of plain sight.  It turns out that almost everything he said in the Assembly that day was so false that it might rightly called the opposite of the truth. He and his political adviser backed by his party leader had it seems been running a hate campaign against the ousted Chairman of the Housing Executive that smacked of venomous sectarianism. The BBC reporters provided more than enough evidence to allow for other Assembly members to demand his immediate resignation.

The story begins in April 2011 and a building maintenance company situated in the constituency of Peter Robinson goes into administration after a Housing Executive investigation into allegations of low standard work and overpayments. The Board of the Housing Executive felt it had no other option but to cancel the contract with Red Sky due to the facts put before them by inspectors pertaining to the poor quality of the work undertaken by the firm and also by the firms fraudulent charging of tasks not undertaken at all, estimated to be about £1.5 million. The decision of the cross community board was unanimous.

The management of Red Sky decided not to go quietly. In the middle of the April 2011 Assembly Election campaign they approached the leader of the DUP and First Minister Peter Robinson and informed him that the Housing Executive held a sectarian i.e. anti-Protestant bias against the company. Peter was furious about what he had been told about the Housing Executive decision and nine days later led a delegation to meet with its chairman Brian Rowntree to lobby on behalf of the firm. The minutes of that meeting record the First Minister stating that the decision to terminate the contract ‘reflected a sectarian bias on behalf of the Housing Executive.’ He also warned the Chairman that he could expect an enquiry into the Housing Executive after the election of May 2011.

After the Assembly election he appointed his own sectarian attack dog Nelson MaCausland to the post of minister in charge of Social Development, which covers supervision over social housing. A strategy meeting was held in Stormont building on 27 June to find out what could be done to get Red Sky back in the contract game. In attendance where the First Minister Peter Robinson, the Minister of DSD Nelson MaCausland, his political adviser Stephen Brimstone and the DUP MLA Robert Newton.  Crucially, neither the Housing Executive nor the Administrator for Red Sky was invited to the meeting. Three days later Nelson McCausland met with the Chairman of the Housing Executive to insist that the termination of the Red Sky contract be suspended for at least six months.

A letter from Housing Executive chairman Mr Rowntree to DSD Permanent Secretary Will Haire dated July 1, expressed ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the way Mr McCausland and his department were attempting to overturn the Board’s decision. Expressing the thought that both Mr Robinson and Mr McCausland may have broken the ministerial code of office by lobbying in support of Red Sky, Mr Rowntree added ‘We understand that meetings have taken place with the senior management of Red Sky in administration and the minister, first minister and other DUP representatives…. This raises the question of did these meetings constitute canvassing and lobbying for government contracts and in breach, not only of public procurement principles but basic codes of conduct in public life.’

Nelson McCausland later said that he took the letter to be like a declaration of war. Having failed to pressure the Chairman of the Housing Executive into overturning the Red Sky decision once, the DUP turned to one of its own councillors who sat on the board of the Housing Executive for a second go. The minister’s special political adviser, one Stephen Brimstone, made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer and more or less commanded her to change her vote at the next Board meeting called in July 2011 to re-examine the Red Sky decision.

Just ahead of the board meeting Jenny Palmer told the Chairman of the Housing Board about the DUP attempt to make her change her vote and he advised her to declare an interest and absent herself from the vote, which she did. When he failed to get the vote overturned Nelson McCausland carried out Peter Robinson’s original threat and ordered a comprehensive review into how the Housing Executive awards contracts to be carried out by chartered accountants ASM Howarth.  Four days before the ASM report is due to be delivered the Chairman of the Housing Executive resigned citing personal stress and a challenging relationship with the DSD and the minister.  At this point Nelson sensed a retreat, and then went on the offensive accusing the Housing Executive of failing its tenants across many fronts. In January 2013 he announced he intended breaking up the Housing Executive and passing on the ownership of the housing stock to privately run Housing Associations.

Public Reaction:

We will cover this in two episodes. In the first episode we got a party political reaction and a media assessment of a similar temper. Sinn Fein was in the best position to drive the questioning of the credibility of Nelson McCausland and his party boss. Their leader at Stormont is Martin McGuiness the joint first minister with Peter Robinson and their senior policy maker Alex Maskey just happens to be the chairman of the Social Development committee that is supposed to make the Minister accountable.  The first thing to note about Sinn Fein is the party did not call for any immediate resignations from the DUP led government. Some starry-eyed pundits in the media praised this restraint as showing their newfound political maturity.

Martin McGuiness made just two points; that the ‘statutory inquiry led by the DSD under Alex Maskey needs to begiven full support in its work’ and that it was necessary for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner ‘to investigate the relevant matters raised in the programme as a matter of urgency, these allegationshave the potential to undermine public confidence in the public institutions.’ Two days after the Spotlight programme was broadcast Alex Maskey convened his investigative committee and Nelson duly appeared to face the music. It was the failure of the DSD committee to pursue Nelson that provoked the first episode of widespread negative media reaction.

‘The Irish News’, the main morning newspaper read by nationalists, headlined the report on the committee meeting as; Minister shrugged off Teletubbie Mauling. The chief reporter wrote ‘Chairman Alex Maskey seemed at pains to highlight the good relationship the Minister enjoyed with his scrutiny committee and beyond asserting that the public would be demanding answers said little to cause the DUP rep any concern.’ He concluded the report by stating that ‘all round it was an opportunity missed not so much a grilling as a friendly invitation to the minister to come and warm his toes by the fire.’ 

The Belfast Telegraph, a newspaper traditionally supportive of Unionism, was equally dismissive of the DSD questioning of the DUP minister.  The headline it ran on the 5/7/2013 was ‘Watchdog lets McCausland off the hook.’  The Telegraph reporter was struck by the deference shown to McCausland – ‘He spoke for 54 minutes without one interruption’, something that rarely happens in the equivalent British committees.  He suggested the members were discouraged by Nelson’s verbal dexterity in comparison to their own lack of education. Nelson walked away from the committee asserting that the BBC Spotlight broadcast was just a ‘hotchpotch of speculation, insinuation andinnuendo.’ He threatened the BBC with legal action, as did his boss Peter Robinson, and it should be said that we referred to Nelson’s animus against the local BBC news reporting in our previous blog – Nelson reckons it is moved by a strong anti-British bias.

Because of the general negative media reaction, Sinn Fein decided to take another step and asked for a summer recall of the Stormont Assembly for a one day debate.  It looked as if they felt they needed to perform a bit better than they did at the DSD committee meeting.  However there was still no demand for resignations, only for an investigation about standards of conduct.

It is important to note at this stage what the press and assorted pundits were saying was potentially wrong with what the DUP had been doing. One view was that there was a potential ‘corruption charge’ being levelled at the minister.  What this actually amounted to was difficult to pin down, there was no suggestion that Nelson had sought to make any personal financial gain from the Red Sky advocacy.  Then there was the Sinn Fein procedural charge of breaching the ministerial code of office by lobbying on behalf of a private firm for business contracts.  Peter Robinson felt able to dodge the ministerial code charge by a nimble use of procedural semantics.

On the 5th July he gave an interview to the Irish News claiming that he had attended the strategy meeting with Red Sky in his capacity as elected MP for East Belfast and not in his capacity as the First Minister ; ‘Could anybody expect that the elected representative of east Belfast would do anything other than get exercised about the loss of jobs andseek to do something about it’.  He also declared his annoyance at the BBC saying ‘ I’m no longer going to tolerate this kind of accusations that Spotlight throw out in the hope that nobody takes any action against them for it.’

So within two days of the programme the BBC Spotlight team were facing four legal threats, one from the First Minister, one from Social Development minister Nelson McCausland, one from the management of Red Sky and one from special adviser Stephen Brimstone. A couple of media pundits pointed out that the Executive had recently rejected British Government proposals to change the libel and defamation laws to lessen restrictions and now we know why.

The third area for media concern was about bullying – the attempted bullying of Jenny Palmer by male thugs.  Jenny Palmer was talked about in terms of being a whistleblower, a heroine in the making and she became the must have interviewee.  This was the theme of  ‘The Irish News’ political column by Fionnuala O’Connor – ‘DUP’s whistleblower gives cause for cheer’. The opposition Unionist party in particular made the bullying charge the big issue and their Ross Hussey appeared on the original Spotlight programme to decry the bullying.  Then in the DSD committee meeting Michael Copeland, another Unionist Party member, made the terrible treatment of Jenny Palmer the core of the issue.    

What was remarkable at this point was the fact that the elephant in the room of the evidently sectarian inspired onslaught on the Housing Executive went largely unspoken. This was so much the case that the critics of the media elevated the ultra right wing TUV leader Jim Allister to the role of champion of public morals.  Every time the media wanted a quote about the ‘scandal’ they looked first for one from Jim Allister.

‘The Irish News’ ran the next big story on the Red Sky affair on the 9th July under the front-page banner ‘Allister rounds on the DUP’ accompanied with a picture of him.  On the same day the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran their lead with ‘Corruption claims rock Assembly.’  Jim Allister had framed the criticism solely in terms of financial corruption and party political favouritism, and for now most of the political class and media were happy to let it all rest at that.  Jim Allister was afforded a guest column in the Telegraph on July 11th to present us with the heart of the matter: ‘while the party ‘s treatment of Jenny Palmer  is shocking, the most  damning portion of the programme was that which dealt with the glazing contracts after representations from a DUP-friendly contractor, Mr McCausland put on hold the glazing contracts.’

He also argued for a judge led inquiry under the 2005 Inquires Act because 10 of the 11 members of the DSD committee belonged to parties of the Executive.  Another media pundit Alec Kane actually found some comfort in the scandal writing in the Telegraph; ‘This is also the first major political story which hasn’t centred on a spat between unionism and republicanism or between the DUP/Sinn Fein and the smaller Executive parties. And again that is what makes it interesting, because it’s as close as we have come to a normal so called scandal.’ (5/7/2013)

to be continued.

Why are the flag protests still going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelson McCausland, a little man with a big loud drum. (by Belfast plebian)

47925243_3707225203_e18c6d4d4e-1It is a hell of a misfortune that at this time of a drastic need for some form of social protection for hard pressed working class families we are saddled with a social development minister in the Stormont Executive whose opinions accord well with the right wing government across the pond and who is also regarded by many as a hardened religious sectarian. This little man with the big drum is also proving to be the most active of the generally passive Stormont ministers.

It should be said at the outset that he took on the ministerial portfolio at a very awkward juncture when the Tory austerity plans where already in an advanced state. The SDLP of course vacated the crucial social development portfolio as soon as they caught sight of the content of the welfare reform bill and Sinn Fein screamed PASS to the chance to take over the department from the SDLP following the May 2011 assembly elections. Why Sinn Fein chose to take on the department of arts and culture, the one with the smallest budget and largely symbolic importance rather than one of the key economic departments stands as an interesting question without of course an answer.

Nelson McCausland is known for being an ardent Unionist, a formidable Orangeman and monarchist, a ‘pro-life’ evangelical Christian who is also a Creationist and of course a great enthusiast for something called the Ulster-Scots culture. Indeed it can be persuasively argued that he more than any other individual is responsible for the ideological mishmash called Ulster-Scots culture. When he was appointed to his previous ministerial post in 2009, in charge of dolling out money to the arts and science cliques, his primary mission was to raise Ulster-Scots heritage up a couple of intellectual notches to the status of ‘a traditional culture’ and therefore make it worthy of taxpayer cash. The small budget didn’t deter Nelson too much.

Before he captured the minister for arts and culture portfolio he was the director of a lobby organisation called the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council. Back in those days he had little or no money to promote Ulster Scots heritage as a rival to the Irish language and culture movement and so no one of any intellectual standing took him too seriously. It was only when he got his hands on the department cash card that the little man with the big drum had to be listened to by the typically anti heritage arts cliques.

For a brief moment Nelson attracted the attention of the middle brow Guardian newspaper, thus earning a wider notoriety and crossing swords with non-other than uber-scientist Richard Dawkins who declared that the minister was an unfit person to be in charge of science museums. This was after Nelson wrote to the Ulster Museum requiring that it display a range of Creationist inspired artefacts to offer the North’s naive children a legitimate alternative to the “unproved theory of evolution.”

It didn’t take much to put down poor Professor Dawkins, faced with the acuity of Ulster’s superior evangelical mind. “Dawkins is an arrogant and militant atheist who prides himself on his knowledge and reason. He loves to demean and disparage others but this time the mighty man came unstuck” declared Nelson on his personal blog.

Being anti-modern in evolutionary science has not stopped the little man with the big drum being a very successful politician, He is already into his second ministerial position and is easily the busiest minister. Some people think they know why he is so successful. The key to his lasting popularity they say is to be found in his very frequent sectarian public outbursts, something that goes down well in loyalist flag waving working class districts. Let’s run through just a few of his more recent efforts.

On the third of October the Belfast Telegraph ran a story -‘Fury after Nelson McCausland says there’s no need for more Derry housing funds.’ It emerged that the minister had refused a recent appeal by Derry City Councillors for additional funds for the Housing Executive to build more social housing in the city. The latest figures revealed that the number of families and single people on waiting lists had passed the 3,000 mark

Sinn Fein councillor Tony Hassan said ‘we get a letter back from the minister’s secretary and to me it was disgraceful.’ The SDLP councillor John Tierney called the statement of the minister ‘crazy’. And here’s a nice Nelson touch – ‘the minister’s letter also referred to Derry City Council in the address and throughout as City Council of Londonderry.’

On the 25 September he faced down an SDLP sponsored motion calling for a three month parliamentary suspension for supposedly breaching the ministerial code by failing to condemn illegal acts conducted by a royal black band parade as it swaggered outside St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in Belfast. The suspension motion attracted a lot of media attention and was voted down. And so the little man’s political stock went up within his own party. McCausland, more than most DUP politicians, gets a kick out of baiting both ‘republican’ and nationalist politicians. He runs his own blog just to keep the invective regular.

In mid-June we can pull out another two media stories, ably covered by the online newspaper the Detail. The story broke that Nelson McCausland had caused worry and anger among Housing Executive workers when he chose to provide fellow DUP assembly colleague Paula Bradley with the religious breakdown of staff employed in North Belfast in the most public way. The decision was strongly criticised by trade union officials who warned that publication of the religious designation of workers in specific localities might put them at risk.

Less than a week later a car belonging to a Housing Executive employee was destroyed after it was set on fire by masked youths as it was parked outside the agency’s district office in Newtownabbey. ‘The Detail understands that Housing Executive officials have been forced to review security measures at offices across Belfast as a result of the attack. In a series of questions to DSD ‘we asked Mr McCausland to explain why he decided to publish the figures against the advice of his own officials and despite staff concerns…We also asked DUP MLA Paula Bradley why she had originally asked for a religious breakdown of staff… she chose not to respond.’

Also in June McCausland was criticised for blocking plans to build 200 new houses for people deemed to be nationalists on the vacant site of the former Girdwood army base in North Belfast. ‘However the Detail can now reveal new evidence showing that the DUP minister held discussions with the Housing Executive to ensure that four loyalist areas in north Belfast were given preferential treatment to be included in a new housing building scheme despite having little or no sign of any significant homelessness.’ Nationalists make up most of the 1,300 people in homeless stress in North Belfast.

The Detail obtained evidence that emergency approval was used to ensure that the four estates were added three months after the three year building plan had been finalised by the Housing Executive. The change was all down to pressure from the DSD and was a clear breach of a 40 years old protocol that social housing should be allocated strictly on the basis of priority of need and not on the basis of political or religious affiliation. This incidentally dragged Sinn Fein into the mix as they had agreed to the decision at local level talks.

And here is one from this month, this time from Nelson’s personal blog. Under the heading Biased Broadcast Corporation he complains about a pro Sinn Fein bias at, of all places, BBC Northern Ireland . He thunders against a BBC documentary that he hasn’t even seen about the life of the youngest Lord Mayor of Belfast, who happens to be a member of Sinn Fein, councillor Niall O Donnghaile.

He notes ‘This is not the first BBC documentary on a Lord Mayor. There was also a documentary on Alex Maskey, who was Lord Mayor in 2002. In between there were eight other Lord Mayors and they were drawn from all the larger political parties, but the BBC has decided that the only party whose Lord Mayors merit a BBC documentary….There is an onus on the BBC to acknowledge that it was wrong to give preferential treatment to Sinn Fein, to determine how this happened, to ensure that it does not happen again and to take action to redress this balance.’ There is a lot of this type of thing on Nelson’s blog, most of it aimed at excoriating Sinn Fein, his partner in government.

So Nelson’s strong electoral success can be attributed to some degree to what appears to be his carefree sectarian mud-slinging that goes down well with his many loyalist followers. However this is not what I want to focus on so much, rather I want to show up his other prejudice, his right wing class prejudices that make him the emblematic leader of the main party of government at Stormont.

Nelson holds strong opinions on socio-economic matters but critics prefer to ignore them, all the more to encourage him to just get on with his ministerial post. If only Nelson would just do his job and not court publicity things would be fine say his newspaper critics. But Nelson is getting on with his job. In fact he has the two biggest policy initiatives of the Executive on his agenda, implementing the welfare reform bill and dismantling the Housing Executive.

We can pick up the thread of Nelson’s approach to welfare reform from his offering on the bedroom tax. The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) Cameron Watt recently called on Nelson to delay the implementation of the bedroom tax until the Universal Credit is actually ready to go. This would of course only mean a postponement of about six months, from April 2013 to October 2013.

According to NIFHA this is ‘necessary, realistic and fair.’ Nelson rejected the very meek proposal outright saying that ‘I intend to increase funding available for discretionary housing payments to be made to all social housing tenants.’ In other words if any of the 34,000 tenants experience problems with rent they might be able to get a discretionary payment to help them out. Housing officers are to be offered a new career path into becoming poor law guardians.

The public line of the Stormont Executive is that it is being blackmailed by the Con-Dem government into progressing the welfare reform bill. If it was down to them it would not happen but if they put obstacles in its way they would face financial penalties

Yet in his speech to the NIFHA conference Nelson says “Turning now to events at a UK level, everyone in the room will be aware of the welfare reform agenda which is progressing. We know that its implementation is unavoidable. I think most of us will agree that the key principles behind this legislation are positive and we should recognise the real positives and opportunities that can be achieved as a result of some of these reforms.”

The principle that Nelson likes most is the one that says a welfare system should promote personal and social responsibility. In fact Nelson being a keen evangelical is happy to edge the State out of welfare provision and get the churches in. His department has already licensed a couple of schemes to that end.

We find an article on his blog of 25 November 2012 called signposts for funding churches “The Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, believes that there is a very critical role to be played by the faith sector in developing strategic partnerships with Government to help deliver practical approaches to tackling poverty. For this reason, the Minister funds the Faith Forum for Social Development …. Minister McCausland wants all faith-based groups to become engaged with the Department whether it is on local Neighbourhood Renewal Partnerships, benefit uptake or helping ensure the connections exist between vulnerable citizens and agencies such as the Social Security Agency or the Housing Executive. There is no cost to them and only benefits to be gained by those most in need.

Nelson’s DSD operates something called the Voluntary and Community Unit which doles out millions to agencies like the Law Centre, Citizens Advice Bureau and Northern Ireland Council For Voluntary Action. It also funds the Regional Infrastructure Programme which has an annual budget of 3 million to fund community groups. Some scope then for Nelson to put his own brand of welfare policy into operation.

The day Nelson became Social Development minister in May 2012 was the day the death knell sounded for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and of socialised housing. Nelson has chosen to make social housing his battlefront. We already mentioned the clash over the abandoned Girdwood Barracks, the emails seeking knowledge of the religious makeup of the Belfast offices in February 2012 and the publication of Catholic numbers working in Newtownabbey.

There has also been his row with the senior management over a £7 million repair contract with a company situated in East Belfast, Red Sky. The contract was terminated in July 2011 following accusations that the company had engaged in a practice of overcharging. Huge political pressure was piled on the NIHE to overturn the termination of the contract

Three days into his post Nelson met with the NIHE chairman Brian Rowntree to ask that the decision be suspended for six months. The investigative magazine the Detail gained access to the emails. The NIHE chairman sent one to the Department for Social Development (DSD) Permanent Secretary Will Haire on July1 saying he had ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ over the pressure being applied by the DSD over the contract and asked that the minister take a step back. The DSD permanent secretary emailed back saying ‘I believe that you should withdraw the remarks you made.’ Four days later Mr Rowntree resigned as Chairman citing personal reasons.

Nelson knows a few things about the NIHE that are not to his liking. He knows that it came into being to end the allocation of social housing on the basis of religious affiliation and he knows it always has had a catholic majority in its staff. But putting the sectarian boot into the NIHE is not his only motivation. He does not like its social democratic ethos. He is in fact busy drawing up plans to have it broken up and privatised.

It is likely that the 90,000 tenants will be transferred to private Housing Association where rents are higher. A good number of redundancies will follow out of the 2,800 staff. For those who think he will face opposition from Sinn Fein – think again. In July Stormont announced that it had set itself a target of transferring 2,000 homes to Housing Associations and a number of British based Housing Associations are said to be taking soundings. The public justification for the change is stated in the consultation documents, which is the need to raise a billion pounds for repair work. The NIHE is not able to raise loans from private banks but Housing Associations can do so.

What is motivating the politicians in the Stormont Executive to break up and privatise the NIHE? Some might think it is pure sectarianism. But if it is, what about Sinn Fein? Do they also want a sectarian carve up? Is it simply a relentless falling into line to what is happening to social policy in Britain, with the varied the attacks on the social housing sector? Is it the Stormont Executive looking for one way to cut its own costs in this time of austerity? Or is it that nobody wants to rock the Stormont boat too much in case it sinks and so Nelson must be left to pursue his own private political agenda with a minimum of opposition? Maybe all the above motivations are factors? What do you think?

Northern Nationalism in Denial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2011 census results in Northern Ireland

NorthernIrelandCouncils-religion2008 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting over flags in Belfast

6The decision last night of Belfast City Council to stop flying the union flag 365 days a year, and not at all over other council buildings, resulted in a protest by around 1,000 loyalists outside the City Hall and ultimately a small disturbance. There was also trouble in East Belfast when the result was announced including an attack on a Catholic Church.

In preparation for the vote the Democratic Unionist Party had distributed tens of thousands of leaflets attacking the Alliance Party which had indicated it would not support unionist demands that it continue to fly all-year round but would propose that it fly only on designated days.  This is around 15 days a year on occasions like the Queen’s birthday and is the policy at Stormont where the devolved Assembly sits.  Nationalists had stated their intention to call for a vote which would have led to the flag not being flown at all and the Alliance proposal was seen as a compromise.  Holding the balance of power in the council it was widely expected the Alliance proposal would succeed, as it did.

In the build up to the council meeting the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which is the political front of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) stated that while its previous position was that it accepted the flag should only fly on designated days, now that it was being demanded by nationalists it would oppose it.  Sinn Fein has claimed that the UVF was prominent in the protest which led to the minor violence.  There is no doubt that loyalist paramilitaries were behind the violence in East Belfast.

At the demonstration the usual sectarian songs and slogans were recited and an Irish tricolour was burnt.  The BBC interviewed some participants in the protest.  One protested about the need to defend the flag that had been flown in Afghanistan while inside a DUP councillor protested that nationalists were attacking the union flag and other parts of Protestant identity.  The case against flying the flag could hardly have been better made by those opposed to it.

Loyalists defend the flag because it is a symbol of imperialist might and of sectarian identity while liberals complain that it is the flag of the country and should not be confused with sectarianism.

Of course flags are symbols of states.  They fly to denote the claims of that state over territory or over institutions.  They cannot be divorced from the history and policies of that state or institutions and they cannot be divorced from the actions of those who fly it.  For all these reasons the union flag is a symbol around the world of empire, military adventure and occupation and in Ireland it has a history of being identified with a sectarian state and sectarian practices.  The protestors were defending it because they support all of this, they support imperialism and sectarianism.

The approach of the PUP is instructive in this regard.  To Catholics their policy is – yes you can have rights, but only those we will let you have.  So you would not have to put up with the union flag flying every day if you had kept your mouth shut and not tried to change it but now that you have you must be prepared to suffer protest and intimidation.

This is the point that all those complaining about pointless arguments over flags refuse to take on board.  If the continued flying of that flag results from the exercise of intimidation then that is what the continued flying of that flag represents and that is what it symbolises.  It would do so, and has done so up to now, because that is what has allowed the flag to fly.  As a symbol it represents sectarian intimidation and the union flag symbolises the power of a state established by force and sectarian intimidation.  That it is now defended in such a way simply confirms this.

Some further observations can be made.

The rabidly sectarian character of the protest and opposition inside the council chamber blows yet another hole in the ‘campaign’, if that’s not too strong a word, by Peter Robinson and his claim that Catholics are happy with the union, partition and can be won to support the DUP.  If the flag of that union is claimed by its defenders as a part of a sectarian identity just what part of the state are Catholics supposed to identify with and support?

Garnering non-sectarian support for British rule is the role of the Alliance Party and it is no coincidence that the main target of the unionist campaign was this party.  The intention of the DUP is to win the East Belfast Westminster seat back from that party and sectarian flag waving is the way to do it.  That in doing so the claims of Robinson are exposed is not accidentally ironic.

The protest was relatively small despite the effort put into it but the reaction from the state was instructive.  The police had their usual low profile which was criticised by Sinn Fein and compared to what their activity would have been had 1,000 republicans turned up.  The presence of  figures reminds everyone, or rather it should, of the Chief Constable’s attendance at the PUP party conference earlier in the year.  This is now neatly sandwiched between UVF rioting in the lower Shankill and similar activity in the city centre and East Belfast.  This attendance signalled acceptance of such activity as part of the normal rules of the game but rules which should not be overstepped.

BBC interviewers refused to entertain criticism that loyalist figures were in attendance and might have something to do with the violence.  Fortunately one no longer has to worry whether the BBC will similarly refuse criticism of Osama Bin Laden on the grounds he is not in the studio to defend himself.

Concentration on the small size of the protest is therefore misplaced.  Unionism has increasingly taken to the streets, reflected in sectarian exhibitions in Donegall Street outside a Catholic Church and in the very large Ulster Covenant demonstration. The City Hall protest was sponsored by the main unionist parties who are both in government and they have signalled the issue is not over by promising to demand that the union flag is flown permanently at the cenotaph in the grounds of council buildings.

Even as low level controversy sectarianism is necessary for political rivalry and feeds continued division.  It sets wider political expectations and exposes the limited role of the state in combating expressions of sectarianism.  The liberal pretentions of the British state are allowed to continue to be presented as the only choice and the effect is to enforce an unacknowledged intimidation of alternatives.

In the larger scheme of things this particular issue does not threaten wider instability but it is one of a number of sectarian outbursts that remind everyone who cares to pay attention that the sectarian dynamics of Northern politics and society remain intact.  It is very unlikely that the continued brewing of this sectarian kettle will forever remain off boiling point.

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.

Scottish Independence and a United Ireland

Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of the Northern Ireland administration made a speech last week about the attitude of unionists to a possible vote in Scotland for independence.  He didn’t think it would succeed and argued that there was no conflict between “one’s regional and national identity”.  Because the North of Ireland is just a region, and unionists believe themselves to be British, Robinson made the basic mistake of describing Scotland as a region when it is of course a nation.  The issues his speech touches on are interesting in a number of ways, especially the question of a United Ireland.

Firstly he states that even if Scotland voted for independence, he was confident “it would not alter Northern Ireland’s desire to maintain the link with England and Wales.”  But why England and Wales?  Why not Scotland?  We have all had to suffer the manifest nonsense of the existence of an ‘Ulster-Scots’ people with an Ulster-Scots’ language and an ‘Ulster-Scots’ culture yet nary a thought appears when it might seem there is a choice to be made between Scotland and the rest of Britain as our wider home.

This is of course because the ‘Ulster-Scots’ movement is a sectarian invention designed to prove the absolute and complete difference between the Irish, who have a real ancestral language, and can be taken as Catholic, and those who are not Catholic and support partition.  This is necessary to provide some legitimacy for this partition and the existence of the Northern State.   Marxists understand that all nations are inventions, it is just that one invented almost overnight on the basis of a non-language and another nation’s cultural heritage, whose purpose seems to fill in successful grant applications, is not very convincing.

The reason that an independent Scotland is not considered as the unit to which the Northern State must be subordinated is that it is too small and would not have the resource and power to enforce any challenge to the Northern State’s existence.  If that means sacrificing the blarney about kinship with Scotland, who cares?  After all didn’t unionists dump the identity of ‘loyal Irish’ when the majority of the Irish people decided they weren’t loyal?  And wouldn’t many also dump the loyalty to the Queen part of ‘loyal to Queen and country’ professions of faith should, heaven forbid, the British change their law, allow a Catholic to be head of State and the next King or Queen start believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation?

What matters is the existence of an outside power with the means to defend their claim to a privileged position within the population they have lived with for around four centuries.  Behind all the various labels they and others have attached – loyal Irish, Ulstermen, Ulster-Scots, British, British-Irish, Northern Irish – what is really sought is a designation that doesn’t make it quite so obvious that what is being claimed are sectarian rights.

The project tentatively raised in recent speeches by Peter Robinson about reaching out to Catholic unionists died a death when he recently supported sectarian loyalist parades past a Catholic Church in Belfast.  The attempts to dress unionism up in non-sectarian colours always fail.

A corollary of this is that those supporting Scottish independence because it will undermine Irish unionism are wrong because this unionism relies on State power directed from London, not any purported emotional or familial attachment to Scotland.  Equally the idea that because independence is sought on the grounds of democracy in Ireland, in the form of a United Ireland it should be supported for Scotland is also wrong.

For Marxists the objective is the unity of the working class across nations.  If it is not united, by definition it cannot act on behalf of its interests as a whole.  National divisions often prevent this unity.  To remove the salience of such divisions it is necessary that nations reflect no decisive material divisions beyond cultural ones that can be accommodated, involving difference without division.  For this to be the case there must be equality between nations.

Self-determination of nations is a means of ensuring that any nation suffering national oppression is able to escape this oppression and stand in a position of equality.  For small nations this is impossible in an imperialist dominated world so questions of nationality often frustrate international workers unity.  Nevertheless the removal of national divisions is also a process intrinsic to capitalist development and socialists must support the erosion and removal of divisions among workers due to nationality.

In Ireland partition has divided workers North and South and within the North on the grounds of religion. The removal of partition may be seen as part of a democratic process to remove the foundations of this division.  In principle partition and its associated divisions could just as well be undermined by a united polity across Britain and Ireland.  History has demonstrated that it is just this ‘unity’ that created and fostered this division in the first place.  A united and separate Irish State is therefore a legitimate project which could further the removal of divisions within Ireland and which socialists should recognise as progressive on this basis.

In Britain there is no real or substantive division among workers based on being English, Scottish or Welsh.  Creation of separate states, such as would  happen with Scottish independence, would however go a long way to creating the material foundation for such divisions. This would set back considerably the struggle for workers unity.

Scottish independence and a United Ireland do not have political dynamics that are at all similar and to believe so is in my view a mistake.  How do we know this?  Well this is one experience of Irish history that does have direct relevance to Scotland.  The creation of a separate state has deepened the divisions that existed in Ireland before partition because it created a new one.  This new one is also now strong and it is not one that is conducive to workers unity.  I’ll look at this in the next post.