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Loyalist decommissioning pantomime – British sanctify role of sectarian thugs 

John McAnulty

8 July 2009

The peace process in the North of Ireland has generated a fair bit of jargon, usually meant to obscure the issue and make sure that working people were kept in the dark about the secret diplomacy and squalid deals that keep the unstable process from collapsing.

So, for example, we have the word decommissioning, which is meant to tone down the effective surrender and destruction of the IRA’s arms to avoid upsetting the republican rank and file. Choreography initially meant the set of steps in a dance sequence and came to mean the sequence of deals and ‘spontaneous’ statements following on from each act of surrender by the Provos. 

Following reports of Loyalist decommissioning of weapons on 29th June the words ‘flipped’ to take on a new meaning. Choreography now means pantomime – a series of clumsy and uncoordinated actions and statements worthy of clowns and lacking all truth and conviction. Decommissioning takes on a new meaning. Where once it meant the surrender of IRA weapons, it now means the failure to surrender weapons on the part of Loyalists. 

This non-event was immediately celebrated as historic, yet even if full decommissioning had taken place the word historic would not have fitted.  IRA decommissioning was historic because the surrender of arms marked the political decommissioning of the movement. The republicans transformed from being irreconcilable opponents of British rule to supporters of that rule and the surrender of arms marked the total and humiliating defeat of the revolutionary nationalist current.  The surrender of loyalist weapons would have none of this significance, partly because the loyalists were not an independent force, but criminal gangs armed and supported by the state, more importantly because the imperialist forces triumphed in the conflict. The question then becomes: why do the loyalists need weapons a decade after their triumph? 

Following the June 29th pantomime we have a new and more sinister question.  Why is it that London, Dublin and the capitalist parties in the North, including Sinn Fein, are willing to go along with a process which allocates the loyalist gangs a formal place in civic society without achieving the full surrender of weapons?  Under the old Stormont the loyalist gangsters would have been part of a formal state militia – the ‘B’ specials. Any attempt to amalgamate them formally into the state forces today would lead to an explosion, but they still have a role as a formal element of civic society.

So the great and the good line up to celebrate a non-event and laud the emperor’s new clothes:

British secretary Shaun Woodward declared: “This is an historic day for people in Northern Ireland. The leadership of the UVF and RHC have today taken a bold and courageous decision for peace. For those who have doubted the political process it is proof that politics works, and that guns have no place in a normal society. I also welcome the movement by the UDA that they have started to decommission their weapons”.
Peter Robinson saw the actions of the Loyalist groups as follows: “Taken together, this is a significant and historic milestone for Northern Ireland”. The PUP, mouthpiece of the UVF claimed that the act: “shows that peaceful, stable, inclusive democracy is the way forward for our country.”  This view was echoed almost verbatim by the Ulster Unionists.  Mark Durkan of the SDLP expressed muffled scepticism, saying that: “The UDA now have to go some distance ….. The sooner that this happens, the better for everyone in the North”.  Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein was more positive, happy to rely on the institutions set up by the British: “let’s wait and see what John de Chastelain says about this”. Irish president Mary McAleese thought the act “signals a turning away from a culture of conflict towards a culture of good neighbourliness, within Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland”.  This view was echoed by the Irish Government and the Catholic church, with a supporting chorus from Europe and from US foreign secretary Hilary Clinton.

Yet to wholeheartedly join this chorus one would have to lobotomise all aspects of memory and avoid even the mild glimmers of intelligence in the local press.  Memory would remind us that the penultimate act of the UVF was to put all its weapons beyond use. The drug-induced death of a leading member led to the discovery that what this meant in practise was a massive arms dump in a house and garage in the heart of the Shankill. The UVF disowned the dump and the member and all was smoothed over. 

Now, with this final act on weapons, the local press confirmed the absolute and total UVF decommissioning – except, of course, for the Mount Vernon mob and the country groups.

As for the UDA, there is no pretence that any significant amount of weapons have been surrendered for decommissioning.  Again a memory is of some significance in interpreting what has gone on.  This decommissioning sham follows years of cajoling, bribing and threatening the Loyalists.  Last May the British indicated that they were at the end of their patience and pronounced a February deadline.  In February they gave an extension, warning that the decommissioning body would be wound up and that the issue would become a simple criminal matter, with a hint that the bribes and community grants would start to dry up. At the same time the Independent Monitoring Commission, set up at the insistence of the Unionists to confirm IRA decommissioning, concluded: “The leadership (of the UDA) is area-based and not cohesive. There are some who remain opposed to significant change, and policy often seems to be more reactive than strategic."  In other words the UDA is a group of sectarian gangs without political direction or central leadership and there is no prospect that they will surrender their arms.

So the real significance of the historic day is not that the loyalists have surrendered their weapons, but that they have not done so and the British, rather than use the state forces to disarm groups that they themselves largely set up and armed and which are deeply penetrated by their intelligence forces, have agreed to call a finish to the process and leave the loyalists with the majority of their weapons. So the Loyalists and their weapons are to remain a permanent part of the Northern political scene and this outcome is applauded by all concerned!

There can only be one explanation for this behaviour.  The loyalists, despite the absence of any politics or significant support, still have a role to play in the new society.  It is a role sponsored by the British and it is a role not substantially different from the role they played in the old society.  In order to understand that role we have only to look at recent incidents involving the loyalists. The McDaid murder, the Roma attacks and the Ballymena flag incident.

Loyalists were involved in all three incidents of hatred, although the state made vigorous attempts to obscure this fact. The McDaid murder involved the UDA invading an area in order to take down an Irish flag and punish the locals.  The fact that this was a murder attempt was underscored by the injuries of the second victim.  Brought back from the point of death he had multiple injuries, all to the head and with his body completely unmarked. No random assault – an attempt to kill.  The Loyalists were involved in attacks on Roma that led to 100 people leaving Ireland – the fourth incident of mass racial intimidation in south Belfast in the recent past. When a member of a residents association near Ballymena remonstrated with UDA thugs and asked them if they had residents permission to deface the area with sectarian flags the response was three bullets fired into the house that night – this happened on the day that loyalist decommissioning was confirmed. 

In order to understand the role of the loyalists it is necessary to understand their interrelationship with the state and unionist politicians.  In the McDaid murder the police responded to threats with a series of phone calls in which they offered to broker a solution between residents and the sectarian thugs (and one unofficial call that urged the Loyalists on). When the killing happened the local DUP councillor and Gregory Campbell, a DUP minister, argued that the thugs had been provoked by the flying of a tricolour. Loyalist thugs returned to the scene of the murder to erect orange flags and in the resulting confrontation the police arrested one of the initial victims of the sectarian attack. The police issued a statement saying that they were working behind the scenes to find a solution that would accommodate everyone – that is, supporters of the killers and the victims!  Later the Orange marched within feet of the murder scene, having voluntarily changed their route by a few metres. The Parades Commission, a special government body that regulates all demonstrations, took no action. The Orange established their right to sectarian intimidation, no matter what the circumstances.

In the Roma attacks the loyalists were able to return night after night at the same time, using petrol bombs and eventually entering the house where the Roma lived.  The role of the police was to escort the Roma away from their home and eventually out of the country, then to oversee continuing intimidation, involving death threats to the North’s only ethnically Chinese politician, Anna Lo.  The site of the attacks is metres away from an earlier hatefest, when a leading unionist politician led a mob chanting “Sandy Row is Sandy Row”. In that case is was an attempt to search out Catholic students supposedly living in the area, but loyalists do not draw sharp distinctions between sectarianism and racism.

In the Ballymena attacks a local DUP councillor did protest, but this was because of the narrow ground on which the attacks took place – the residents had agreed to the flying of the sectarian flags with an agreement that they would be limited in number and fly for July only.  The attempt to murder the couple was based on a meek call for the bigots to honour the agreement.

The couple who came under fire were Protestants, and this highlights the role of the loyalist gangs – not just to intimidate Catholics, but also to remind Protestants of their place and cement, with the support of unionist politicians and the state forces, the irredeemably sectarian nature of the Orange state.

The new northern state involves a change of tone – simple majority rule of Unionism has been replaced by “equality of the two traditions”, but this in practice has amounted to greasing the palms of the Catholic Church, the politicians and ‘community’ groups. The equality element boils down to the police offering to mediate cultural exchanges between loyalist bigots and their victims. Such a system is inherently unstable, given the size of the nationalist minority, so the loyalists have an assured place in the scheme of things, reminding everyone of the limits on where you should work and live and the subordinate position that nationalists must accept. Every year the bigotry climaxes in the 12th July demonstrations and an orgy of hatred and intimidation.

One thing has changed – the fervent efforts of nationalist politicians to endorse and accommodate the new dispensation. 

The arms dénouement follows years of manoeuvring by the British and a similar time-scale for a charm offensive by the Irish bourgeoisie. Government funds went to commemorate the battle of the Boyne, the Somme, and donations were made to the Orange Order in the South. The northern Catholic hierarchy met the inarticulate representatives of the UDA in solemn conclave - something that would have been unthinkable in relation to the IRA. Martin McAleese, the husband of the Irish president Mary McAleese, funnelled money and resources to the UDA. He helped persuade loyalist brigadier Jackie McDonald that the UDA had nothing to fear from the Dublin elite. The Irish establishment gave their blessing to the sectarian gangs as the two men played golf together.

Sinn Fein are towed along behind their big brothers in the nationalist family. The resumption of republican militarism led to angry calls by Martin McGuinness for state and society to mobilize against the militarists. With the McDaid killing McGuinness called for the DUP figures who justified the killing to show leadership – very little anger or force here! Sinn Fein regularly responds to the raw sectarianism of their partners in government by demanding that unionism demonstrate a progressive program that exists only in the imagination of the republican leaders. The Shinners are unable to denounce the decommissioning farce, instead deferring to the international committee that they themselves denounced as a British puppet. When the followers of UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald, after years of bribery, still mount sectarian flags at interfaces with nationalist areas the republicans refer to 'complex issues' rather than to the rabid intimidation that actually exists. Given the collapse of republican opposition the capitulation of the trade union movement becomes absolute.  ICTU spokesperson Peter Bunting, in the aftermath of the Roma intimidation, declares that it does not help to “point fingers at loyalist communities.”  ICTU then organise a milk and water demonstration “against hate and for diversity” that is attended by UDA representatives!

The decommissioning farce does not mean that Britain wants Loyalist killers roaming the streets carrying out sectarian murder. What it does want is an attack dog, chained in the front garden as a warning to all. They would have preferred a creature more tightly muzzled, but actually existing loyalism will serve its purpose.

With the ceremony of decommissioning the loyalists have been sanctified. The use of state forces on the one hand and a fistful of bribes on the other have left them as the street level guarantors of the sectarian state. The hurrah from all sides means that the political parties all accept that place.

There are many in the North of Ireland who oppose sectarianism and racism. Many of these understand that this involves opposition to loyalist paramilitaries. There is a growing suspicion that the structures of the St. Andrews agreement will not lead to a gradual decline of sectarianism. There is some way to go before we see a conscious understanding of the need to bring down the current structures and build a party of the working class. 

The farce of loyalist decommissioning does however bring that day nearer.


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