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Opposing "ALL" Sectarianism

Joe Craig

8th August  2002

It has been quite clear for some time that far from the peace process leading to a weakening of the sectarianism that characterises northern society we have witnessed an increase.  Such is its extent that this is now widely acknowledged even in the media and by political forces fully in support of the process.  This is significant because for these people it is inexplicable.  They have resorted to claims that they knew getting rid of sectarianism would never be easy, would never be quick or, most implausibly, that it is really on the way out and we are all just witnessing its dying spasms.

This is neither convincing nor surprising.  These people never identified the source and power of sectarianism in the first place and so are unable to account for its growth.  Only Socialist Democracy, right from the start, said that the peace process was a sectarian process that had a reactionary dynamic built into it.  What was, and is, on offer is not reform but modernisation of the sectarian state. The forces that compose and defend this sectarian state, the British and Loyalism, seek further advances on the gains already made: renunciation of the state’s illegitimacy by its erstwhile republican opposition and their incorporation as subordinate partners in the state’s sectarian administration.

Political Strategy

Loyalism seeks to put more pressure on the British to deliver greater sectarian largesse for ‘its community’ while seeking the further humiliation of Provisional republicanism and its expulsion from positions of influence within the Stormont assembly.  Sectarian intimidation is an effective weapon as the British present it as a symptom of ‘alienation,’ with talk of a ‘cold house’ for Loyalism legitimating straightforward bigotry.  The respectable unionist parties, with much the same agenda, provide further political cover through the Loyalist Commission.

This body was set up under inspiration of David Trimble not because of exasperation at the intensifying programme of sectarian attacks on the Catholic population but in order to help stop rival loyalist paramilitaries from killing each other.  This body now produces regular statements that pin the blame for mounting sectarianism on republicans while presenting as good coin the systematic lies of the front men for the loyalist death squads who regularly appear on television proclaiming a ‘no first strike policy’ and professions of peaceful intentions that no one could possibly believe.

The British, through the new police force collude with these bigots, the conviction rate for these attacks is close to zero, while they have normally, so far, been able to wipe the noses of dissident republicans before they even sneeze.  Their wilful blindness to loyalist attacks started off with claims that they did not know who was carrying out the attacks, proceeding to claim that only a minority of the mainstream loyalist paramilitaries were involved and when this proved untenable claimed that they had no effective weapons left.  Eventually compelled to ’specify’ the end of the UDA ceasefire they invented a claim by the UDA that it would cease its attacks, only exposed when the UDA failed to play ball, admitting to making no such statement.

Declaration that their ceasefire had ended signalled no change of policy by the British.  Some weeks ago they claimed an accidental meeting of John Reid with the loyalist paramilitary leadership in which he said that if (IF!) they chose violence he would oppose them.  How could any sane person talk about ‘if’ in the middle of a concerted sectarian campaign that had been going on for a couple of years.

It might be asked what the British get from this loyalist campaign but the answer is readily apparent.  They get a demoralised Catholic population that increasingly realises that republicans cannot or will not defend them and that their only recourse is to the forces of the state – the new PSNI.  This in turn forces Sinn Fein onto the Police Board and one more step to solidifying British rule is achieved.

The sectarian campaign that we have witnessed is therefore one conducted by an alliance of loyalist paramilitaries, unionist politicians and British characterised by a neat division of labour but with the same rough objectives.

Nature of Campaign

This loyalist campaign has involved daily attacks on Catholics right across the six counties for at least the last two years, concentrated but by no means limited to Belfast.  Even local SDLP politicians have spoken of transparent attempts by the bigots to remove Catholics from predominantly Protestant towns such as Larne and the complete failure if not unwillingness of the local PSNI to do anything to stop them.  In Belfast the campaign has led to the shameful scenes of abuse and violence against young Catholic children at Holy Cross School in Ardoyne and regular attacks against Catholics living in ‘interface’ areas.

Repeatedly this campaign has spilled over into random sectarian murder bids and in the last year three young men, two Catholics and one Protestant mistaken for a Catholic have been killed by the UDA.  Whole sections of workers have been threatened, teachers, post office workers, hospital workers at the Mater hospital and construction workers in Derry.  Whole streets have been attacked in actions reminiscent of 1969, such as the recent attack at Ligoniel.  Beyond dispute the overwhelming number of attacks have come from loyalists, even on occasion exposed as attacking Protestant homes in order to blame it on Catholics.

In these circumstances to make a particular and special call for everyone to oppose ALL sectarianism as the trade union movement has done is quite simply a disgrace.  The call is always to oppose ALL sectarianism while mentioning no one in particular, except on occasion the IRA.  It is made a point of honour not to single out anyone for special attention even if, as is clear, it is Loyalism, backed by the British, who are especially to blame.  ALL sectarianism is opposed in order not to oppose any sectarianism in particular, even that particularly responsible.  No differentiation is attempted in evaluating the sectarian practices that go on, again because that would point to the culpability of loyalists.  No specific political strategy is ascribed to the attacks because again this would lead to uncomfortable conclusions.  When motives are ascribed, it is of politicians attempting to impose a neo-liberal economic agenda on a divided working class that are clearly, in this setting, of second order importance to the calculations of the British and loyalists.  The neo-liberal agenda of the British is under no threat from republicanism anyway.

What is clear then is that the special emphasis on opposing ALL sectarianism is a capitulation to the real sectarianism that exists and sometimes this capitulation is craven and nauseating.  So when the leaders of the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions left the funeral of Gerard Lawlor they went to meet the men who ordered his killing.  These bigots promptly demanded to know if the union leader's condemnation of sectarianism was directed against them.  No came the reply, we oppose ALL sectarianism.  For the UDA that was ok; they know, as some on the left do not, what the political significance of opposing ALL sectarianism means.


To avoid false accusations let us be clear.  Opposing all sectarianism is an elementary duty of any socialist.  But what we face, as we have made clear, is a particular political situation in which sectarianism plays a particular role.  The overwhelming incidence of loyalist attacks is not an accident, it means something.  The collusion of the British means something.  The pattern of sectarianism that has occurred did not happen accidentally or unintentionally.  Socialists have to analyse the strategies and intentions behind the attacks to work out a response.  An undifferentiated condemnation of ALL attacks that claims no essential difference between a planned sectarian programme of intimidation and the reflexive sectarian responses from the target population fails to identify the cause and responsibility for what is going on.  The ALL position is therefore not only a capitulation it is an admission of impotence.

We can see this quite clearly.  In the effort to appear even-handed the first name mentioned in the anti-sectarianism rally at Belfast City Hall on 2 August was David Caldwell who, whatever one can say about the criminal nature of the murder, was not a victim of sectarianism.  The policy of condemning ALL sectarianism means a spurious attempt at a balance that does not exist.  There is no equivalence between spontaneous sectarian attacks and a sectarian campaign colluded in by the state.  The ALL formulation is specifically designed to camouflage this reality.

Where is the republican equivalent of intimidation at Holy Cross?  Where have the hundreds of IRA bombs exploded in Protestant homes occurred?  Where is the evidence of British infiltration of the IRA leading to the murder of Protestant workers?  Even the idea is absurd.  But this exposes the reality of a specific dynamic behind sectarianism that the ‘ALL’ formula obscures.

Have there been sectarian Catholic attacks on Protestants?  Of course there have.  Should these be condemned and opposed? Of course.  Should we hold back on their condemnation because Catholics have suffered most intimidation?  No!  Should we lump them all together and pretend there is no particular pattern or significance to the attacks?  We have answered that question at length.  Is it sectarian to state the truth plainly: that it is Loyalism that is responsible for the vast bulk of attacks?  Of course not, although it is a favourite ploy of those who want to fight an imaginary sectarianism to label those who want to fight real sectarianism in such a way.  The latest and most nauseating proponents of this old tactic are now the political front men for the death squads in the UDA and UVF.

It should come as no surprise that the Catholic population under constant sectarian attack should produce sectarian impulses in return.  It is not even necessary that republicans should seek to stimulate such impulses.  Sectarian attacks that are legitimised as ‘community division’ with the whole Catholic population on one side and Protestant on the other invites a sectarian stance.  No longer is sectarianism the strategy of particular political agents and the state but it is labelled an unavoidable condition of a divided community.

In the absence of a strong socialist movement every message Catholics get is that their tormentors are legitimate representatives of the Protestant working class articulating legitimate grievances.  If they take this to be true a sectarian response is perfectly comprehensible.  This, for example, is what was so criminal about the Socialist Party touring Billy Hutchinson of the PUP/UVF around the country and further, proclaiming him a socialist and genuine representative of the interests of the Protestant working class.  That they now deny this only adds dishonesty to the charge sheet.  Some Socialist Party supporters now defend their actions by claiming their policy as attempting dialogue with the left wing of Loyalism (whatever that is) but this is more than a little hard to defend when Hutchinson openly declares himself ‘a sectarian bigot.’

The Left

This brings us to the role of the left, and particularly the Socialist Party in promoting this disgraceful policy.  As the left of the official labour movement they provide only a very thin gloss on the cowardly policy of the trade union bureaucracy. The unionist veto that infects their general programme has once again come to the fore.  Thus they opposed the rally called by Belfast City council and supported by NICTU because it was called by sectarians with sectarian motives and will ‘isolate a large section of the Protestant working class, who will feel that the Trade Unions are taking the ‘nationalist’ side.’ (See indymedia website for full details)

While there are many reasons for criticising the rally and its organisation many will find the idea of NICTU bias in favour of nationalists simply incredible.  The SP never previously noticed that peace rallies called by the trade union bureaucracy specialised in vocal criticism of the IRA while remaining silent about loyalists even while loyalists were significantly out-killing republicans.  In the last rally on the 18th January no loyalist organisation was named while the IRA was specifically criticised.  This despite the rally being called in response to a wave of loyalist intimidation, including the murder of postman Daniel McColgan.

What can one say about such selective sensitivities?  It is difficult to come to any other conclusion but that the SP’s opposition to all sectarianism is not the equal opposition to sectarianism whatever its source that they maintain.  Once again for the SP the benchmark is the consciousness of the most backward section of the Protestant working class.  Thus their position is rather close to that of the most extreme loyalists in the DUP who also opposed the demonstration.

This is not an accidental coincidence of views since the rationalisation for their positions is the same – Protestants are unfairly singled out.  That they adopt this nomenclature is further confirmation of this identity of views.  Even if the rally were directed mainly at loyalists, which contrary to SP predictions it wasn’t, this would not make it mainly directed at Protestants.  The easy substitution of Protestant for loyalist that unionist sectarians like to make so much use of is here also used by the SP.  It is precisely such identification of sectarian political forces with Protestant workers in general that socialist must combat if they are to expose the real nature of sectarianism.  This is by no means a lapse by the SP.  It is a feature of their politics revealed by another aspect of the indymedia discussion.

Thus the SP ‘support the right of Protestants to march in arterial roots of towns.’  In case anyone is unclear ‘Protestants’ really means the Orange Order, a bigoted anti-Catholic organisation whose role inside the Protestant working class is to instil the view that you can’t be a good Prod without being anti-Catholic.  The SP thus present Catholic opposition to sectarian marches through or past their areas as a question of the right to march, a democratic question, which, since the Orange Order is not fascist, must be upheld.  They are entirely innocent of the reality that the issue is Catholic workers opposing sectarian triumphalism on their own front door and that what we are dealing with is not an abstract question of rights but a political struggle in which sectarianism is on one side and its victims on the other.  But understanding of real sectarianism as opposed to sectarianism in general is, as we have seen, not the SP’s strong point.

For socialists in Protestant communities the issue is not their co-religionists right to march, as the SP present it, but how could we one day arrive at a situation where Protestant workers also oppose sectarian Orange Orders parades through Protestant working class areas.  If the SP find it hard to get their heads round such a concept they might find it easier to envisage socialists in Catholic areas opposing sectarian Catholic organisations demonstrating against Protestant workers.

Because the left, and this includes the Socialist Workers Party who recognise the real facts of the overwhelming preponderance of loyalist attacks and at some level understand that the motor and engine of sectarianism is Loyalism, accept NICTU’s ‘oppose ALL sectarianism’ approach they are more or less blind to the trade union leadership's real role.  Thus both the SP’s and SWP’s leaflets at the rally on 2nd August at Belfast City Hall oppose 'ALL' sectarianism but fail to make special mention of those specially to blame.  This leaves them politically disarmed when the trade union leaders and politicians do exactly the same.  Everyone who lives in the Northern State knows that there are thousands upon thousands who are prepared to say they are opposed to sectarianism but immediately retreat when confronted with exactly who the bigots are and how they get away with it.  The leaflets of the left, by omitting to explain the dynamic behind sectarianism, simply present a left version of this failure.

NICTU opposes sectarianism, as we have seen when confronted by the UDA, by denouncing ALL sectarianism except the bigots sitting right in front of them.  Thus both leaflets fail to warn workers of the real role of NICTU.  Fail to denounce their silence in the face of attacks and fail to denounce their failure to mount real action.  Above all, fail to explain that if workers want a real campaign against sectarianism it will have to be built independently of NICTU who have only capitulated to it.

The British

Of course behind the failures of the NICTU bureaucrats and Socialist Party is their view that somehow the British State has no significant role in creating and sustaining sectarianism.  This despite the well known collusion which takes place between the state and loyalist paramilitaries, something which again failed to appear in the left’s leaflets.

The SP explanation for such a view is that ‘the British state has wanted out of Northern Ireland for a long time, this is clear from cabinet documents recently released from the 60s’ (see indymedia web site) Against such weak evidence they discount the fact that the British have just waged a dirty thirty year war to keep the six counties part of the UK and have sought to undermine any possible future move by the 26 counties by getting the southern state to drop its territorial claim over the North.  They fail to explain why creating unrest is any barrier to getting out when much greater disorders did not prevent them pulling out of Palestine or India.

Anyway, even if we accepted the SP’s argument, how would this change the imperialist nature of British rule?  How would this alter their responsibility for what has happened and continues to happen?  The SP tell us that an imperialist analysis of the North ‘is based on the past.’ They don’t explain when or how British rule ceased being imperialist. Lenin long ago explained that imperialism is a system, not a policy that can be changed in some benevolent direction.   Their politics are simply a pink version of the Brits own claim to disinterest.  The incapacity of the SP’s argument to explain away the role of the British only shows their desperation to absolve them of guilt.


This debate is important because one thing the left says is undoubtedly correct.  Only a working class movement can overcome sectarian division in an increasingly demoralised working class.  The more that Loyalism is pandered to and legitimised the less Protestant workers are able to resist it.  The more this happens the more sectarian arguments appear to have merit to Catholic workers and their responses to attack become sectarian themselves.

As loyalist paramilitaries are presented as legitimate political actors articulating legitimate grievances non-sectarian Protestant workers are less able to argue with their fellow workers that they are their enemy.  The more the whole Protestant population is identified as one tradition, a sectarian Orange one, the less calls on Catholic workers to respect that tradition either make sense or work.  Instead all Protestants can become labelled orange bigots despite the annual evacuation of the North by many Protestant workers come the 12th July sectarian carnival.  The less Catholic workers see non-sectarian opposition within the Protestant working class the less appeals to workers unity appear realistic and the more Catholic sectarianism appears as the only option.

Above all, the more these processes are pushed by the British state, which colludes with the loyalist gangs, buys them off with grant money and treats their bigoted demands as legitimate grievances, the more the rotten state that protects sectarianism escapes scrutiny or opposition.  Thus while the left is correct in saying only workers can beat sectarianism they are so far from understanding what sort of political programme can do this that they promise no hope for the future.  Hope lies with workers themselves taking militant action when threatened and a real socialist left being built that can connect with these workers and together build a political alternative to sectarianism and imperialism.



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