Okay, I have been watching for weeks this "flag" controversy in Northern Ireland. I've watched loyalist violence, police violence, attacks on Republican neighborhoods, road blocks and all the rest. What the hell is going on? I wish I was capable of giving a truly informed response, but I admit that I am not. That is both because I don't know enough and because there are lots of answers and too much history.
There are those who see it as just one more replay of the the Republican-loyalist war, or even a struggle between unionists and nationalists and the failure of leadership in the unionist parties. There are those who want to blame it on the Protestant refusal to accept Catholics of Northern Ireland as even belonging in the six counties. There are those who see class struggle and capitalist obfuscation. All sides also blame the police, the PSNI. I would guess they all have some hold on the truth which lies spread across that whole spectrum.
Workers's Liberty, which represent a Marxist, libertarian, working class brand of socialism believes the protests and riots, "reveal an undercurrent of rudderless desperation amongst Ulster loyalists." They write:
...for all this, the protests, numbering just a few thousand, have involved relatively few people. They are a far cry from past instances of loyalist discontent in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw rallies rallies of hundreds of thousands protest the prorogation of the Stormont parliament and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
....Despite the superfluity of potential leaders, the protests lack any strategic leadership. In the past, larger upsurges of loyalist anger usually served to advance one or other fraction of the Unionist establishment, such as former Unionist minister William Craig's Vanguard movement against direct rule, or Ian Paisley's doomed campaign against the Good Friday Agreement which nevertheless allowed the DUP to eventually supplant its Ulster Unionist rivals.
Meanwhile, a recent report has highlighted levels of enduring poverty, unemployment and social exclusion in Northern Ireland. There is no 'mechanical' connection between immiseration and the recent unrest and the primary trigger remains a political one. Yet, continuing high levels of unemployment and poverty have seen sections of the population alienated from the political system, and undoubtedly sharpen loyalists' self-perception as 'losers' in the 'peace process'.
Some of this is warranted; some is not. It is true that Northern Ireland as a whole has had consistently higher levels of people not in paid work than the rest of the United Kingdom. Moreover, as of January 2012, 5.4% of the working-age population in NI was claiming Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA), compared with 4% on average. This is a long-lasting trend: in 1996 the level was 8.4% as compared to 6.2%, and in 2000 the figures were 4.2% and 3.3% respectively.
Northern Ireland also has a high level of households without work (21%), households with only one adult working (31%) and a growth of part-time work as a proportion of the total number of jobs. This is one of the factors behind high levels of in-work poverty and child poverty.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that Catholics are more likely to be in poverty than Protestants. The poverty rate for Protestants is 19%, compared to 26% for Catholics. In the three years up to 2000, 28% of working-age Protestants were not in paid work compared to 35%.
'Objectively', the perception held by loyalists of Protestants being left behind by Catholics is wrong. Yet this is beside the point. Absolute levels of poverty and unemployment in Northern Ireland are high amongst both communities. In Belfast, where much of the unrest has taken place, the employment gap between Catholics and Protestants is only 3% (37% to 34%); the salient fact here is not the slightly lower levels for Protestants but that over a third of the Belfast working-age population, regardless of religious identity, is not in paid work.
To explain the protests, one must understand that working-class Protestants are clinging to the one thing that, in their minds, does separate them from their fellow Catholics workers: that is, the vestigial privilege of their Protestant British national identity. And as James Connolly wrote, when the 'working class is obsessed with visions of glory, patriotism, war, loyalty or political or religious bigotry, it can find no room in its mind for considerations of its own interests as a class.'
The idea of uniformly impoverished Catholic community, too, must be jettisoned. The overall differentiation within the Catholic community is wider than that between the communities. Part of the lower average work rates for Catholics is down to the geographical discrepancy between the west and east of Northern Ireland. Some of this can be explained by sectarianism, such as the historic concentration of civil service employment in Greater Belfast by the old Stormont regime, with only limited attempts at de-centralisation thereafter. Other factors, such as distance to major ports and other transport hubs cannot.
What is clear, however, is that, when geography, age, disability and other factors are taken into considerations, the remaining gap in work rates between Catholics and Protestants which cannot be explained – that down to religion itself – is falling.
Some of this is reflected in changing attitudes. Turnout in the 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly election was 54.5% - down 15 points since the first Assembly election in Northern Ireland – suggesting disenchantment with the main parties and a diminishing desire to vote in order to keep out the 'other side.' When given a poll in 2008 which included 3 graduated degrees of identification with the Irish and British national identities (as well as both exclusive answers), 58% of respondents replied that they were some mixture of both, while 45% of respondents answered 'neither' when asked whether they were unionist or nationalist.
Gerry Adams, of Sinn Fein writes at his own blog, that the sectarianism of the past "still haunts the north." He adds:
For unionism the northern state was their state. It didn't matter that some unionists also lived in appalling housing or worked in terrible conditions. The northern state – the Orange state – belonged to them. It gave them a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have changed all of that....
The underlying ethos of the Good Friday Agreement is parity of esteem, mutual respect and equality.It is also about change. Any process of change present big challenges. There are those who fear change.They see equality for all citizens as a threat.
It is clear that there are some among unionism who want to turn the clock back. Who believe that mutual respect means nationalists accepting that the unionist ethos must dominate.
That’s not mutual respect or equality. Nor does it reflect the political and demographic realities of today. 90 years ago the northern state was carved out of the rest of the island on the basis that it provided unionists with what was then believed to be a permanent in-built two thirds majority...
In the most recent census figures published just before Christmas less than half of the population designated themselves as being British. 40% said they had a British only identity.
A quarter of citizens stated that they had an Irish only identity while 21% said they had a northern Irish only identity. That’s 46% of the population rejecting a British identity and seeing themselves as Irish.
So, the north is not as British as Finchley – as Margaret Thatcher once claimed – and unionists have to accept that almost half of citizens in the north have a different identity.
Could this gradual change in demographics and in peoples’ opinions be part of the motivation of those who seek to stoke the sectarian fires?
Could the decline in the unionist vote be part of the rational for the response of some unionists to the changes that are taking place?
Playing the orange card – fuelling sectarian divisions - is an old unionist and British tactic used to mobilise unionist opinion and put nationalists in their place.
It is a dangerous tactic which in the past brought pogroms and partition and decades of violence.
The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organised by BNP, UVF and criminal elements, some of whom are well known drug pushers. They are seeking to exploit this situation for their own ends.
Following the attacks this weekend on the Short Strand neighborhood by reactionaries and unionists, Eirgi added the following....