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British support for Orange sectarianism – Is there nothing new?

Joe Craig

3 August 2006

The more and more open displays of loyalist intimidation, most recently in a UDA public meeting in north Belfast to discuss the ousting of the local leadership in favour of figures sponsored by the central organisation, has more and more clearly revealed what the new ‘peaceful’ political dispensation offers in the North. 

The meeting, held on Belfast City council property, has been criticised on the grounds that its use of council premises represents at least semi-official sanction for the open discussion and therefore sanction of the latest round of internal feuding.  The British government now barely conceals its policy of supporting a ‘good’ UDA against a ‘bad’ one.  Little pretence, unless challenged, is given to the idea that a murdering sectarian and criminal gang should be locked up instead of being offered millions of pounds in bribes to behave. 

In fact, as the battle within the UDA intensified, the state could be seen everywhere, containing the incidents to some extent, but underlining the invulnerability of the sectarian gangsters to arrest or prosecution and intervening to ensure that their candidates for leadership in North Belfast gained the upper hand.  An armed mobilisation of UDA thugs was prevented by police from entering Soukri territory, but no arrests were made – bizarrely they were confined to a nationalist area, causing a great deal of fear as they jammed the streets.  One is reminded of earlier mobilisations, for example when the Loyalist UVF took over the Garnerville area, beside the police headquarters, and when the UDA massed on the Shankill road to expel ‘Mad Dog’ Adair.

As in these earlier incidents the police eventually escorted a smaller mob of armed UDA members and stood by as they intimidated Shoukri supporters from their homes, even going as far as escorting the deposed gangsters to the border so that they could catch a Dublin plane! 

This policy of supporting Loyalism involves unbelievable contortions in the application of the law in which prominent UDA figures are charged with offences which never come to trial and the charges are eventually dropped.  Or they meet the government as UDA leaders and are then let off membership charges on the bizarre basis that they might have been members at some point in the past but this is a purely historical matter!

To hold up Loyalism the British have supported Orange parades past Catholic areas and are attempting to organise health, social and education services on a purely sectarian basis.  The British save they Loyalists from their own worst excesses and attempt to discipline them, not by putting some of them in jail, but by giving them money for ‘community development’ and thus strengthening their stranglehold on Protestant working class areas.  It is clear that loyalist paramilitaries are not to disappear in the new dispensation but are to be to be legitimised and supported.  A bigot-free Northern Ireland is not on offer. 

Nothing New?

It might be tempting to say that there is nothing very new in any of this.  Much worse has happened in the past. After all the British State not only stood by when these death squads carried out hundreds of sectarian murders but actually gave them the guns to do so, planting agents in their ranks to make them more effective in their task.

But this would be to miss out on something important.  Things are different now in at least two respects and the first of these can be seen in what might initially appear minor ways.

Firstly it has been pointed out that while the UDA has assembled hundreds of thugs on the streets of north Belfast in recent days to intimidate whoever gets in its way the local DUP MP has said nothing.  Instead the DUP has issued statements condemning the IRA!  Perhaps nothing new again some might think.

Usually acerbic critics in the press have commented on all this in the last two days in the local ‘Irish News’.  Former local SDLP politician and current Sinn Fein cheerleader Brian Feeney has talked about the British adopting the Muhammad Ali strategy of ‘dope-on-a-rope’ in which the Brits allow the UDA to punch itself to exhaustion. (Unfortunately this analogy does not explain how the Brits, unlike Ali, supports and nourishes the ‘opponent’ or just who is taking the beating in the meantime)

The next day Newton Emerson, a believer in something akin to the Da Vinci code – non-sectarian unionism, concludes a column with the demand that the DUP and Sinn Fein ask the British government if it has ‘struck the right balance between overreaction and appeasement?’

What both reveal in a mild way is a collapse of opposition to sectarianism.  The British State openly rewards sectarian paramilitaries and its critics wonder if it is being too soft.  Their criticisms become muted, tired and limited to pointing out lies and hypocrisy.  This is done only to question British good intentions, not as a precursor to assigning complete and considered culpability and responsibility.  Since both Unioniss and Sinn Fein, despite their apparent differences, are dependent on the British State for their own view on how things can be made better they can only question the policy of appeasement, point out its inconsistency and condemn its hypocrisy.  What they cannot do is oppose it.

And this brings us back to our first example: a much more significant illustration of the collapse of opposition.

While the DUP ignores loyalist intimidation, in effect forming one component of the State’s sanctioning of loyalist paramilitary activity, Sinn Fein can do no more than cling desperately to a strategy that seeks to put more power in the DUP’s hands by making the arch-bigot Prime Minister of the sectarian State.  Again this collapse of consistent opposition to sectarianism has its roots not in any emotional or subjective softness to Orange bigotry but to their complete dependence on British imperialism to make their political strategy a reality.  Once again the assertion of Socialist Democracy that sectarianism is not fundamentally a problem of local actors, but is dependent on imperialism, receives confirmation.


The second respect in which things are now different is that British sponsorship of loyalist bigots is now much more open.  It is this which has disarmed those critics who are dependent on the British.  They can ridicule the Emperor’s new clothes but they still need the Emperor.

This brazenness is a result of the collapse of opposition to British rule and the acceptance, reluctantly or otherwise, of the new sectarian rules of the political game.  However bad the behaviour it is always justified by the need to maintain ‘peace.’  In the short term such openness allows the British to get away with ever greater displays of sectarianism and however hard it is to believe, we can be fairly confident that we will see worse than offers of £100,000 to the Orange Order to promote inclusiveness!

In the longer term however the open patronage of bigotry will make the British more clearly responsible for failure to deliver security, justice, equality and prosperity that is inevitably entailed in a dependence on sectarianism.

The problem will again be more clearly seen as not the difficulty of two traditions living together but as the landlord’s responsibility for the slum.  A Republican strategy more and more dependent on British good faith will appear more and more bankrupt.  Objectively the opportunities for socialists will grow as the willingness of workers to accept more and more open displays of British support for sectarianism for the sake of peace declines.

For socialists to place themselves to take advantage of such opportunities they must continue to insist (for most of them – start to insist) that sectarianism is the responsibility of imperialism.  They must build their strength so that they become a real force able to exploit the contradictions of imperialist rule.  Their most important weapon in this task is a commitment to political principle without which they only reflect the problem, not the solution.  The centre of such principle is irreconcilable opposition to imperialism.


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