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Loyalist Commission calls for calm, but attacks continue
9th September 2002
Given the reception to the latest statement from the Loyalist Commission on interface violence you could gain the impression that it contained something progressive. A whole spectrum of political figures from British government ministers, through to Unionists and some nationalist politicians have welcomed it as a positive development. The most fulsome praise for the statement came form from Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Robin Eames, who described it as a “significant step” and appealed for nationalist and republicans to take it seriously. However, when the Loyalist Commission is examined, it is revealed as nothing more than a crude justification for the ongoing campaign of sectarian violence being carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. It shamelessly admits that loyalists are involved in violence, and goes on to justify it on the basis they are acting in a “defensive capacity” in response to “tensions" created by republicans. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming number of attacks have been carried out by loyalists. They have been engaged in a ongoing campaign to whip up sectarian tensions and enforce an even stricter segregation of Catholics and Protestants. Yet we are asked to accept that loyalists are only reacting to the provocation of nationalists. Not only that, we are asked to commend their “honesty” in acknowledging their involvement in attacks. The Loyalist Commission statement is factual and political nonsense, and to welcome it is to accept the legitimacy of their claims and actions. That so many can give a positive response to it shows the degree to which a sectarian framework in politics is becoming increasingly ingrained.
One of the main sponsors of this framework has been the British government. The concept of community conflict absolves them of any responsibility for what is going on. This was in evidence during the Secretary of State John Reid’s visit to the Short Strand area of east Belfast, the scene of recent sectarian violence. Despite the fact that loyalists have carried out most of the attacks in the area John Reid insisted that the problem was one of community relations, and that it was wrong to single out the activities of any particular group. He said: “the first thing that we have to do is recognise that the blame game - everybody blaming everybody else - has to stop.” His own explanation for the violence was that: “the paramilitaries and some of the young hotheads are interwoven with the community because we've all had trouble over the years.” In this schema sectarian violence originates within the community and is something that has to be accepted as part and parcel of everyday life. Of course, this completely omits the role that the state has played, and continues to play, in maintaining sectarianism. It also denies that sectarian violence, of the type seen across the north over the last number of years, emerged with the peace process. Areas that were relatively peaceful and had mixed populations during the period of the “Troubles” have now been consumed with violence as loyalists seek to drive out Catholics. Even the Short Strand was relatively quite until this summer, with people free to move between it and the surrounding Protestant areas. However, loyalist attacks on the area have virtually turned it into a walled ghetto under night time curfews.
Rather than challenging sectarianism the British government is actively encouraging the deepening of divisions and giving credence to the claims of loyalist paramilitaries. British ministers have continued to meet with loyalist representatives despite the ongoing violence. In July, John Reid held a meeting with the Loyalist Commission in east Belfast at which he pledged to work with them for peace. Later that month the UFF murdered Catholic teenager Gerard Lawlor in north Belfast. However, this did not bring a halt to the meetings. During his latest visit to east Belfast he met representatives from the Loyalist Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist Party, the political fronts for the UDA and UVF respectively, which have been responsible for most of the sectarian attacks in the area. Although Sinn Fein expressed scepticism over the Loyalist Commission statement, it has also bears responsible for giving it credibility. Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly has met the chairman of the Loyalist Commission, the Reverend Mervyn Gibson over violence in north Belfast. Alex Maskey in his capacity as Lord Mayor of Belfast also met with loyalists. The stated purpose of this meeting was that it was part of an effort to set up a working group to tackle sectarianism! Yet what possible role could loyalists play in tackling sectarianism? Their whole raison d’etre is to maintain it.
Experience shows that affording legitimacy to sectarian groups only emboldens term and confers legitimacy on their claims and actions. The latest confirmation of this came only a day after the Loyalist Commission statement, when the UDA placed an explosive device under the car of Independent Labour Councillor Mark Langhammer, a long term and outspoken critic of loyalist activity in the Newtownabbey area. Loyalists can play no role in diminishing sectarianism; the only way to do that is no defeat them. In the short term that means isolating and depriving them of any pretence of legitimacy.