Monday, January 14, 2013


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.

True to their ideological orientation, Worker's LIberty presents the following analysis:
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.

 Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain is even making a link between the troubles and Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate of 7.8%, but with a twist,

Youth unemployment is horrific in Northern Ireland and particularly loyalist youngsters feel that they don’t have a future. They think that republicans are getting everything.
You’ve got youngsters without training, without jobs, on both sides of the divide actually feeling that this is ‘not their scene’ any more.
Because they can’t get jobs, they don’t have a stake so they’re causing trouble, and there’s also, I think, an identity issue there as well.

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....

 Short Strand – history repeating itself
Short Strand / An Trá GhearrAs so often has been the case in the past, when unionism in the Six Counties finds itself facing any form of internal turmoil, it inevitably strikes out at what can be perceived, in unionist eyes at least, as a common enemy.

Those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such reactionary violence are, more often than not, nationalists living in isolated and vulnerable communities.

Saturday (January 12) was the latest manifestation of this unpalatable reality when up to 1,000 unionists, allegedly engaged in a ‘peaceful’ protest connected with the ongoing controversy over the flying of the British flag, launched yet another orchestrated physical assault against residents and homes in the Short Strand area of Belfast.

Those who live in more sophisticated societies will not readily appreciate the fear and the terror which these organized sectarian forays engender in such a vulnerable, minority community.

The Short Strand is a small working class, nationalist/republican enclave. Situated on the east bank of the River Lagan, this small area, consisting of around 900 homes and a population of less than 3,000 men, women and young people, is completely dwarfed by its unionist neighbours in East Belfast, with a population of 60,000, which surround it on the other three sides. Despite this very obvious imbalance, unionist politicians have repeatedly attempted to falsely portray the minority community as the aggressors.

In 1970, violent large-scale unionist attacks on the Short Strand led to one of the first major gun battles in modern times between republicans and the forces both of unionism and the Six-County state as republican volunteers were left with no alternative but to use arms in defence of the families living within the streets of this little community. Led by Billy McKee, a small group of very lightly armed republicans repelled wave after wave of unionist assaults on the area.

That iconic armed defence of the Short Strand was to propel the Provisionals, who had separated from the Official IRA several months earlier in December ’69, onto the world stage and kick-started what would become a prolonged and intense armed revolt that lasted for over a quarter of a century.

During that conflict, almost fifty residents of the Short Strand met with violent deaths, many of them at the hands of British controlled unionist death squads.
On Saturday, Short Strand residents and their homes were again attacked by crowds of hostile unionists. It was but the latest in a whole series of assaults on that community in recent weeks.

In scenes reminiscent of 1970, the Six County police force permitted unionist mobs to march along the Albertbridge Road, literally within just a few feet of nationalist homes.

Long before those mobs had crossed over the Albert Bridge (adjacent to the main Belfast Central railway station) on their way towards the Short Strand on Saturday afternoon, it was apparent to many news reporters and observers that the unionist crowd was intent on causing mayhem.

But, just like the RUC in 1970, today’s modernised and ‘reformed’ police force, the PSNI, effectively channelled the unionist mob directly towards, rather than away from, the Short Strand.

Attack on Short StrandAt approximately 2.30pm, a crowd of around 1,000 militant unionists were escorted by the PSNI from the city centre and down the Albertbridge Road, which is 100% nationalist. The unionist mob then proceeded to launch sustained attacks on residents and their homes. At the same time, the PSNI pushed back and attacked other Short Strand residents who had rushed to aid their neighbours in defending their families and homes.

Well-known unionist paramilitary figures, often euphemistically described by the two main unionist parties, the news media and the PSNI as ‘loyalist community workers’, were openly seen to proactively encourage the attacks on nationalist people and homes.

Saturday’s attack on the Short Strand raises many questions – questions which will be uncomfortable for members and supporters of constitutional nationalist parties who support and endorse policing in the Six Counties.

Constitutional nationalist parties need to come clean and either admit or refute the PSNI’s public position that, during the days leading up to Saturday, elected and un-elected representatives from those parties had been involved with the PSNI in a“significant engagement with representatives from all communities, in anticipation of a movement of protestors into and out of the city centre from east Belfast”.

Any nationalist representative who may have been involved in such engagement with the PSNI would certainly appear to have failed to embody or characterize the very real fears, concerns and apprehensions existing within the Short Strand community about the potential for violence towards members of that same community.

It is, of course, possible that the PSNI simply refused to accept that such fears and concerns were real.

Equally, it is also possible that any such nationalist representatives engaging with the PSNI just felt, for no reason other than their own political credibility and publicity purposes, that they just had to be seen to be at least giving the appearance of doing something while, at the same time, those representatives already knew that absolutely no recognition would be given to any views they expressed.

For over six weeks in various parts of the Six Counties, unionists have now been able to blockade town centres, main routes and thoroughfares with often little or no intervention by the PSNI.

In scenes reminiscent of the blockades mounted by unionists and ignored by the RUC in relation to the Garvaghy Road during the latter half of the 1990s, today just a handful of unionist protestors can halt traffic and disrupt life while members of the PSNI, like their RUC predecessors, stand idly by.

Indeed, in quite a number of areas in recent weeks, there is a growing perception that it is members of the PSNI, rather than unionist protestors, that are responsible for the blockades that are affecting traffic, business and normal life.

That growing perception alone poses a major question for the political credibility of constitutional nationalism.

What is particularly striking is the inescapable fact that concerns being raised about the Six County police force’s inability and unwillingness to deal with unionist aggression today are strikingly similar to those same concerns which were expressed in previous decades.

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