The events in the north in the last week serve as yet another reminder of how great the problem of sectarianism remains. They highlight the failure by the Executive parties to move beyond hollow rhetoric about a shared future, and the fact that the dynamic on which these parties thrive is inherently sectarian. While working together hand in glove, they also need to be seen to be confronting each other, to be standing up for our ones against themmuns. In the internal competition within the two sectarian blocs, that is the means to thrive. The major failure of the GFA is that it was only ever designed to manage and not remove that conflict.
So we get the sectarian shadow boxing over what the parties themselves see as side-issues that are guaranteed to raise emotions and solidify people into communal camps but won’t get in the way of the actual management of the place. Or at least that’s the theory. The Irish Language Act was a good example. Another example is October’s spat about reconciliation. Following Declan Kearney’s comments on reconciliation and his criticisms of unionist attitudes towards it, Peter Robinson responded like this
If Mr Kearney has the temerity to describe his speech as reconciliation then I suspect he would regard a knee capping as physiotherapy
Cue a round of sniping at one another in the press, leaving all sides emotionally satisfied while simultaneously able to point to comments desiring a shared future etc. This is what passes for the politics of reconciliation at a central level. Window dressing, like yesterday’s motion in the Assembly condemning violence and threats, is not enough.
Things are worse at a local level. Rows break out over the allocation of funds for Twelfth bonfires. The DUP refuses to share power in many local councils despite the arrangement at Stormont and in other local councils. GAA grounds being used for events or competitions associated with paramilitaries is a perennial favourite (in its more exotic version, this can extend as far as complaints to supermarkets for allowing schoolchildren to pack shopping for charity in GAA tops). In Newry, with a massive nationalist majority, last week saw the culmination of a row over the proposed renaming of a children’s playground after Raymond McCreesh, one of the hunger strikers. When arrested, McCreesh was in possession of one of the weapons used in the Kingsmill massacre. A new memorial to the massacre had sectarian graffiti scratched into it. The day after, the park was renamed after McCreesh with the support of independent nationalist and SDLP councillors as well as those of PSF. This was the same week that nationalist councillors in Belfast secured Alliance support for their plan to cut the number of days the union flag flies from City Hall on the grounds that flying it alienated those citizens who don’t feel British. The question of how Newry’s unionists feel about the council now seems of less importance to the two big nationalist parties.
The violent response to the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall was in many senses predictable. A clue was offered by the riots that followed the parades commission’s determination following the sectarian playing of the famine song by the YCV band from the Shankill outside St Patrick’s church in north Belfast (and which saw weasel words from several unionist politicians refusing to fully condemn the initial incident and the rioting). The two major unionist parties, especially the DUP, made a serious issue of this, particularly in east Belfast, in the run-up to the vote. There can be little doubt that the DUP’s aim was to use the issue to damage the Alliance Party in the eyes of unionist voters who had switched to Alliance’s Naomi Long at the last Westminster election in the context of the sexual and financial allegations then swirling around the Robinsons. If that desire to take back the East Belfast Westminster seat was the main context, there was also the standard sham fight element. The sham fight dynamic has been accentuated by the pressure on both the UUP and the SDLP, who have both been swinging between becoming more hardline and becoming more moderate as they try to reclaim some lost ground. Mike Nesbitt in particular has floundered badly in all this.
Less predictable than some disorder in Belfast was the way the protests have spread, as far away as Derry city. The virulence of the reaction has also taken many by surprise. Certainly the DUP politician in Newtownabbey stoned by protestors he was trying to address because they didn’t recognise him got a shock. So too did the Belfast councillor who supported the protest the night of the vote only to find his car windscreen smashed by the protestors as they sought to force entrance to the council chamber. There were also nastier surprises. The fascistic attacks on the offices and homes of Alliance Party representatives in several areas (and the death threats issued to them and others such as Gerry Kelly) were, I suspect, totally unexpected by those who wanted to use this issue for political gain. It was interesting to see Billy Hutchinson blame those who put the focus on Alliance for inciting violence. Last night, an attempt was made to murder a policeman who was protecting Naomi Long’s constituency office by throwing a petrol bomb in a car while he was still inside it. How then to explain the nature of the reaction?
It’s tempting to suggest that the violence and protests orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries are as much about ensuring that community development funds continue to flow as it is about anger over the lowering of the Union Jack most of the year in Belfast. The attacks on the Alliance Party may also be influenced by resentment at David Ford’s role as Justice Minister and the widespread feeling among loyalists that the historical crimes team spends more time looking at them than anyone else; the dispute offers an opportunity to settle a few scores. Mike Nesbitt reckons that the reason people have been out in such force is that they feel that they are losing. The idea that they are being stripped of their identity has been voiced in comments in the press and online, and it is common to see the issue linked to restrictions on loyal order marches as part of that argument.
This sense of losing at times seems somewhat remarkable. At bottom, the peace process secured overwhelming support for the principle of consent, and saw the Provisional IRA dissolved. In this flag dispute, Belfast’s nationalist councillors voted to have the union flag flying over City Hall for nearly 20 days a year. This could just as easily have been spun as a victory as a defeat. I have no idea whether this was actually said or not, but I’ve seen loyalist claims that one of the nationalist councillors presented this as a step to a United Ireland. It could equally be presented as a recognition of the Union Jack. But – and this has been something true throughout the process – unionists have failed to see the glass as half-empty, although the DUP does this at its annual conferences when patting itself on the back for taming the opposition. Why is that? The sectarianism of our politics. When you view politics as a competition between us and them, then anything which the opposition welcomes is by definition bad for you. It looked at the time of the GFA that we might be able to break out of that mentality, particularly with the development of the loyalist parties. However, that proved a false dawn.
Some of those charged with rioting were not born when the GFA was signed. This is one of the things that makes the sham fighting so dangerous. It continues the perverted mindset so important to sustaining the Troubles, and perpetuates it among new generations. Coupled with the communalism built into the structures of the GFA, social problems, structural unemployment and hopelessness, you have a recipe for continued outbreaks of low-level sectarian rioting and possibly worse. Reconciliation – the unity of those of all religions and none – is the last thing that will result. And the nationalist and unionist parties depend on this dynamic, whatever about the well-intentioned people within them.
If you want to be truly depressed, take a look at the comments in the coverage of these issues on Sluggerotoole. Not only do you have people ranting about the impossibility of tolerating treason (i.e. advocating peaceful constitutional change and not having the flag flying every day), you have a tendency to blame instances of sectarian attacks on protestants as the secret work of loyalists and/or the Brits. Mick Fealty has for years been tracking low-level sectarian attacks on protestant churches and orange halls, especially in rural areas. He has consistently raised the challenge this poses for people who claim to be republican (although he is more inclined to think people are more genuine about the reconciliation stuff than I am). Some of the comments on his thread on sectarian graffiti daubed on a protestant church last week in Glenavy would make you wonder what goes on in some people’s heads.
Part of the problem of course is the ability of a remarkable number of people to see only the sectarian actions of themmuns. Instances suggesting that it is a problem across the divide are often ignored or explained away. This is inevitable while politics in Northern Ireland is built on the idea that there are two communities. To quote a statement on these events by WP General Secretary John Lowry
The pitiful sight of thousands of people protesting outside Belfast City Hall about flags is matched only by a chamber full of councillors debating it inside.
The real questions that must be asked about this tribal debacle are the ones that Sinn Fein and DUP voters in particular must ask of themselves.
While jobs are being lost, prices rising, homes being repossessed, child poverty increasing and thousands of people across the city facing a daily ‘eat or heat’ dilemma, Councillors in Belfast are using flags and emblems as a smokescreen for their failure to even address these issues.
Sinn Fein and DUP supporters must now ask themselves “Do I really want to vote for a party that is happy to ignore social and economic realities to secure their own tribal positions”?
And there’s the rub. The sectarian problems of Northern Ireland are not due to the politicians nor a small minority. They are due to the persistence of a sectarian mindset among the majority of people. Until people ask themselves the hard questions, until they are prepared to look for an alternative to both unionism and nationalism, things will not change. There’s no point deploring the excesses of a political and social system of virtual religious apartheid if you embrace the system yourself. This is why the sectarian sham fighting of the parties works. The problems of Northern Ireland’s society haven’t gone away you know. The only people that benefit are the middle classes who make a nice living, with their kids going to grammar schools and university and then getting professional jobs while working class children are sacrificed from the age of 11 onwards. Neither unionism nor nationalism can address the problems of the working class. But, paradoxically, while the trade union movement is relative strong, class consciousness is very low. The sectarian mindset dominates virtually unchallenged across most of the north. This is the reality which socialists and progressives must combat through raising genuinely secular, anti-sectarian and progressive politics.