Archive for the ‘Northern Ireland’ Category

Flags, Politicians, Churches, Sectarianism and Ordinary People

December 11, 2012

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.


WP Northern Ireland Regional Conference

October 27, 2011

The Workers’ Party Northern Regional Conference takes place on Saturday October 29th at the Grosvenor Hall in Glengall Street in Belfast, starting at 10 am. Below is the press release. I’m particularly looking forward to Conor McCabe and the debate on the economy. Other speakers include Peter Bunting of the ICTU who will deliver a briefing on the planned UK-wide day of industrial action on November 30th. The conference is a discussion event open to anyone who wants to come along, and aims to facilitate discussion within a wide range of progressive opinion in Northern Ireland.

Economy, Health and Education top Workers’ Party agenda

The Workers’ Party’s Northern Ireland Conference will this weekend hear calls for an alternative socialist economic and social system to address the collapse of the economy and the shortcomings of both the health and education services.

The key conference discussion will focus on the economy, the fallacy of the cuts agenda and the need for a new socialist economic system.

Writer Conor McCabe, author of the highly acclaimed ‘Sins of the Father’,* will be one of the main speakers during the afternoon session.

The conference is also expected to debate the need for major reforms in health and social care services and calls for a complete rethink on education in Northern Ireland.

Letters from Long Kesh: 40th Anniversary of Internment

August 9, 2011

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial. Even by the standards of the late 1960s and early 1970s (batoning civil rights marches, August 1969, the Falls curfew, Bloody Sunday to name but a few), internment was immensely reactionary and incredibly stupid. The introduction of internment against not just Republicans and Provisionals but a wide range of civil rights activists and perceived opponents of the regime resulted in a swift escalation of violence, deepened divisions, and proved just how politically and morally bankrupt the Unionist regime was. The fact that the British Army took the opportunity to test sensory deprivation on a dozen prisoners (as well as more run of the mill forms of torture being applied on a more widespread basis) just made matters worse. For anyone interested in the details of internment and the torture experiments, I’d recommend reading online the now-deceased ex-internee and anarchist John McGuffin’s books Internment (1973) and Guinea Pigs (1974, 1981).

As we know, internment provoked widespread opposition. Just how widespread was shown by the fact that from January to July 1972, the Irish Times carried a regular column from inside Long Kesh (the Letters from Long Kesh), written by Des O’Hagan, a member of the NICRA Executive and leading member of the Republican Clubs in Belfast. 22 Letters appeared. This outraged some of its more traditional constituency, including one member of the board of O’Hagan’s employer before he was lifted, Stranmillis College, who wrote to the Irish Times to say that he was a life-long reader, but now would stop buying the paper due to the publication of the Letters from Long Kesh. Douglas Gageby, however, kept publishing them regardless. On the other hand, another correspondent believed that the humanity, eye for detail, and sense of humour in the Letters betrayed signs of genius, and stated that

I would think that a collection of some kind of O’Hagan’s prison journals would be one good thing that could be salvaged from Internment.

And (better late than never) the Letters from Long Kesh are being republished for the 40th anniversary of internment. From the press release:

The Letters are a unique and invaluable contemporary account of life among the internees. They recount the reaction of the internees to some of the major events during the most bloody and tragic year of the Troubles, including Bloody Sunday (which occurred during an anti-internment march), the escalating bombing campaign, and the suspension of Stormont.

They also reveal the daily rhythm of life as an internee – the cold, the banter among the men, the battles with the authorities for better facilities, the close friendships, the political debates, the sense of helplessness as events spiralled outside the prison walls, the efforts
to ensure the availability of drink for St Patrick’s Day, the struggle against depression, the arguments over who made the tea – all told with compassion and an engaging sense of humour.

The Letters (which have an introduction and annotations) cost a fiver, and more information can be got by writing to

I am including one of the Letters below, from February 19th 1972.


The celebration of the first six months of internment (one sincerely hopes that this is not going to be a spectacular bi-annual event competing with Easter parades, the Twelfth and other illegal promenades) has prompted me to review the improvements in the amenities of Long Kesh; possibly also readers are interested in the ethos of the camp as I understand it, and this, I can categorically state, has not altered in any way.

Let me say at the outset that I now feel, as one of the reluctant pioneers of what I am afraid must be regarded as not an entirely successful project, a certain attachment – or rather a faint quickening of Behan’s “curious quickening” – for my present home.

On that account my judgments may tend to lack objectivity, but I hope that these proffered comments are not construed as simply malicious or vindictive. In a sense then, this is in the nature of a half-term report which could be of some use to future architects of similar schemes (though I would be the first to recommend that any tentative plans be scrapped and a less contentious form of public diversion be substituted). There is probably some demand for another Stormont, a minor royal residence or a new employment exchange.

It is in the nature of things where one day is remarkably like another that small changes should assume major dimensions. For example the decision by someone up there that boots should be provided for the internees is a welcome index that our dialogues with the camp bureaucrats actually do at times go beyond the barbed wire boundaries. Complaints, demands, requests are normally met by an intransigent negative, regularly described in the phrase “for security reasons.” But the boots are more important in another, far more serious, sense because of the gigantic international plot revealed by Dr. Paisley some years ago, when he divined in the Civil Rights Association a conspiracy born from the Machiavellian marriage of Moscow and Rome. Dr. Paisley was as usual correct, as I discovered last week.


Interview with John Lowry at Sluggerotoole

May 3, 2011

Good interview by Alan in Belfast with John Lowry, Workers’ Party west Belfast candidate, as party of his series talking to the smaller parties.

Trade Unions Call Peace Rally for Belfast City Hall, April 6th at 1pm

April 4, 2011

The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions calls on all workers and their families to show their outrage at the barbaric murder of constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh last weekend.

Please meet at Belfast City Hall, at 1pm, on Wednesday 6th April 2011

Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary of the ICTU, said: ““The murder of Police Officer Ronan Kerr in Omagh was an attack on a brave public servant and therefore an attack on every worker who serves the community and works towards a better future.

“The assassins targeted Constable Kerr because he was Catholic, and that makes this a sectarian murder, deliberately aimed at intimidating one section of the community.

“All citizens must stand together to show that we will not be intimidated by violence or threats from armed groups who should now publicly disband

“This public event being organised by the Trade Union Movement is open to all citizens, the vast majority of whom support the democracy we have achieved in this region. We all depend upon the maintenance of peace, democracy and justice.

“We urge all people who can attend the short event at Belfast City Hall at 1pm on Wednesday 6th April to do so.”

Sectarianism in Children

March 12, 2011

Depressing tale from Moochin Photoman at Sluggerotoole of the sectarianism he has witnessed among children. This is the reality of life in Northern Ireland still.

NI Welfare Budget to be Slashed – What will our Politicians do?

November 10, 2010

UTV is reporting that the welfare budget in NI faces cuts of up to £450m. Cuts in welfare spending are made up of the likes of the following

Changes because of the spending cuts include: child benefits frozen for three years from April; Job Seekers Allowance claimants losing entitlement to the support for mortgage interest scheme if they have been on benefits for two years; housing benefit reduced by a tenth from April 2013 if a claimant has been on the benefit; and a compulsory medical examination for all new and existing working age DLA claimants from 2013.

NI is more dependent on state spending and social welfare than other regions of the UK, and dependence within NI varies immensely. West Belfast, for example, is much more dependent upon social welfare than north Down. In other words, these cuts have the potential to do serious damage to entire communities, communities that are already among the most deprived and that have the most social problems in western Europe.

These are also the communities that tend to vote most heavily in favour of the two leading lights of the NI Executive, the DUP and PSF. What will these parties do? It’s already clear from the statements of Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson that the DUP is embracing the cuts agenda. Their nationalist counterparts on the other hand are being more coy, blaming British Tories, and presenting themselves as fairly powerless to do anything about them. Are they?

The UTV report points out that if the local politicians refuse to make the cuts, then they will probably just be made at Westminster before the money arrives in NI. That is one option. Another is to refuse to administer the cuts, and collapse the executive. Creating a crisis of this magnitude would force the Tory-LibDem coalition to think seriously about what it was doing. Our politicians are of course far too self-interested and enjoy the exercise of power too much to do this. Instead they are much more likely to administer the cuts while blaming the Tories and LibDems. Who of course deserve a great deal of blame, but we need only look at Wilson’s attitude towards the trade union demos and McGuinness’s praise for PFI to see that they mightn’t be all that far out of step with the locals.

Privatised Eleven Plus in Postcode Lottery Non-Shock

October 9, 2010

Good story in the Belfast Telegraph demonstrating how far a child’s chance of getting into a grammar school is determined by geography. The story concentrates on the fact that in some schools in places like Belfast, only children with the top grade were accepted. While in other grammar schools, children from every grade were accepted.

What the story doesn’t do, however, is link the question of geography to class, which remains the main determinant of getting access to a grammar school education. That is the real lottery here.

ICTU Campaign against cuts launched

September 10, 2010


The Irish Congress of Trade Unions launched its campaign to prevent the UK government’s planned cuts in public spending which will devastate the private and public sectors in Northern Ireland. The first of a series of pamphlets, leaflets and reports outlining the threat of these unnecessary cuts and the need for an alternative strategy was launched this morning in Belfast.

The Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU are publishing 30,000 copies of a major new publication entitled “Cuts Myths Debunked.” This will be distributed by the 36 trade unions affiliated to the ICTU, as well as by Trades Councils, community organisations and by street stalls.

“Cuts Myths Debunked” can be downloaded from the new ICTU campaigning website:

The comprehensively researched and easily readable report tackles the various myths about the necessity to tackle the deficit in the lifetime of this parliament. The report clearly argues that:

Government debt (70%) is not at record levels – it was 250% when they built the NHS
The debt is manageable – the UK has 12 years to pay off its debts, longer than most advanced states, including the US
UK’s debt is lower than the Eurozone, Germany, Japan and the US
Public spending is lower than comparable EU states
State economy is not same as household budgets
UK Public sector not big compared with OECD states
Health costs are half those of the US
Huge growth in inequalities since 1980.
Top 10% have 100 times the spending power of bottom 10%
Public sector is not too big, private sector is too small
Private sector wages are low, not public sector too high
Public spending maintains demand
There are real alternatives to cuts.
Fairer taxes, all collected, not evaded or avoided
Green New Deal and other investments

The 20-page booklet is the first of a series of publications the trade unions are putting out over the next few weeks, ahead of the ETUC Day of Action across the EU on September 29th and the Belfast rally we are also organising on October 23rd (three days after the Comprehensive Spending Review).

Speaking at the Launch, ICTU Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting said: ““The strategy being pursued by the UK government will certainly make things worse. They will wreak havoc across Northern Ireland. The private sector is especially vulnerable. Our analysis shows that cuts in government expenditure – both day-to-day and capital investment in roads and schools – will result in thousands of lost jobs from private firms which provide goods and services to Stormont and local councils.

“It is also clear that, even after all the years of planned pain, once these services and jobs are removed, they will never come back. This strategy is about the permanent removal of essential jobs and services. It is about the dismantling of the welfare state, the NHS and other quality services and assets. It is about shifting the burden of the economic crisis from the wealthiest onto all workers and the poorest in our society.

“In this light, Congress views with concern, the infighting within various sectors, as to who deserves cuts and who is undeserving. This illustrates our analysis that such a strategy will lead to the complete breakdown of social cohesion and solidarity.

“We really are all in this together, and if we stand together, we can turn this immoral strategy on its head.


This event is part of a major campaign which is committed to building mass public support for an alternative to the unnecessary cuts being planned by the UK government.

Specifically, the NIC-ICTU is preparing for rallies on:

· Belfast & L’Derry, Wednesday 29th September (part of the ETUC’s day of action across the EU)
· Belfast, Saturday 23rd October (part of a series of UK events, three days after the UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review announcement on 20th October)

Peter Bunting added: “An alternative strategy to the current economic difficulties is essential and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is presently engaged in consultations across all sectors of our society and economy and NIC-ICTU will be announcing details of it’s alternatives to these unnecessary cuts shortly.”

Just be quiet, Willie.

September 7, 2010

I’d be more inclined to take McCrea here seriously if it weren’t for this.