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Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) respond to latest research on Sectarianism

Joe Craig

10th February 2002

In the latest issue (no.4) of their bi-monthly magazine the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) look at the latest research on sectarianism.  (See our own interpretation in ‘Sectarianism and the Peace Process’)  They ask the question –‘Sectarianism in the North – is it getting worse?’ (By Sean McVeigh).  It is a question they don’t clearly answer.

They do however give hints that the answer is no. The by-line on the article reads ‘After the horrific attacks in North Belfast, Sean McVeigh examines recent findings which show a different picture and a different way forward.’  On the other hand they state that ‘Many have concluded that the two communities are more entrenched than ever.  In some ways this is true.’

The Statistics

The SWP’s response to the research of Peter Shirlow showing an increase in sectarianism is to point to the fact that the findings of Shirlow are confined to 12 working class housing estates in North Belfast.  ‘..the situation across the North is not the same as on a peace line in North Belfast.’  The findings of the annual attitudes survey conducted by researchers at Queen’s University and University of Ulster ‘are very different from Shirlow’s.’  These latter findings, set out in the article, record that 42% of respondents in 2000 thought ‘community relations are better today than in previous years’ compared to 50% of respondents stating this view in the previous year.  Seventy percent in 2000 would prefer to live in a mixed religious neighbourhood in 2000 compared to 73% in 1999 and 81% would prefer a mixed workplace in 2000 compared to 86% in 1999.

The point of course is not that North Belfast is the same as the rest of the North but rather that it represents simply the sharp end of society and its recent development.  Is North Belfast really that more sectarian than Portadown or Ballymena?  Is the more ‘refined’ bigotry of the North Down coast so very different?  Has the campaign of pipe bombings and threats by loyalists against Catholic workers not also covered Larne, Coleraine and Derry for example?  In what way then is North Belfast so very different?

The attempt to paint it as such is ironically the approach of all those in the media, government and politics who attempt to hide the peace process’s failure to make real changes to many workers’ lives.  The events in North Belfast and the murder on one postal worker in one estate defined politics in the North for weeks and prompted a postal strike and mass demonstrations, yet the SWP would never have dared state that all this was somehow concerned with a marginal or untypical experience.

Only in reference to the view of better community relations do the results of Shirlow and the attitudes survey give directly conflicting messages and even here it is possible to posit a more sanguine view amongst those not actually living in a working class area beside that of the other religious persuasion.  In any case the surveys of objective circumstances – residential segregation for example – paint a more pessimistic picture in relation to the growth in sectarianism.  Attitude surveys are imprecise measures of consciousness and it was Marx who said that just as you should not judge a person by their own view of themselves, so must a society be judged in the same way.  It is always necessary to combine both objective and subjective criteria in any judgement like this and then with an eye to its development and change.

What the findings of the attitude survey do reveal is a real desire to escape sectarianism, but it is the sheerest nonsense to claim, as the SWP author does, that ‘they also show that given socialist politics and organisation the tide can be turned against the bigots.’  Just how do these responses indicate the present acceptance of the efficacy of socialist politics by the population of the North never mind reveal exactly what the character of this socialist politics and organisation is?  There is not so much a leap of logical argument here as an enormous leap of faith.

The author does report on measures of objective circumstances that are also held to conflict with Shirlow’s findings that workplace segregation is on the rise.  He quotes figures from the 2001 Equality Commission Report which show much higher levels of workplace integration than that of Shirlow, which presumably refer to the working class areas he surveyed, and which is rightly pointed out have relatively few jobs anyway. (The Shirlow figures are still shocking for all that and do tell us a lot about the sectarianism that exists.)  A sample of these reported are:

                                     Protestant  Catholic
Private Sector:
British Airways                 65%       35%
Century Newspapers       75%       25%
Coca Cola Bottlers          65%       35%
Desmond & Sons            32%       68%
Ford Motor Co.                53%       47%
Gallagher                          85%       15%
Queen’s University           64%       36%

Public Sector:
Belfast City Council         66%       36%
Citybus                              42%       57%
Housing Executive           51%       49%
NI Railways                       68%       32%

The author states that ‘Someone who has never worked in Belfast but who has read the coverage of this survey could be forgiven for thinking that Catholics and Protestants don’t work alongside each other.’  The reality of course is that they do and this is a hell of a lot better than if they didn’t, but again if we are to move forward it is important to understand the limits of this situation.  Many who live in fear in North Belfast at night work with the opposite religion during the day.  During working hours the unspoken but near universal rule is akin to ‘don’t mention the war.’  One Holy Cross mother interviewed on television spoke of her embarrassment at meeting those she worked with who knew of her situation.

The figures above refer to employers not workplaces.  Discrimination has not been eradicated from employment.  Even if we take the figures for the Housing Executive, the most even, it is well known that sectarianism dominates housing provision and even where Executive employees work.  We simply do not live in a society where workers take employment where they want without sectarian factors featuring heavily in their decision.

The Argument

So what do the SWP ascribe the rise (?) in sectarianism to?  They isolate economic and social conditions as the key to the growth of sectarianism: ‘At a deeper level, the re-emergence of community sectarianism stems from worsening poverty.’

The evidence quoted for an increase in poverty is a proposal to reduce school cleaning costs through privatisation of service provision.  In fact it is not immediately obvious that poverty has increased over the last number of years.  A research report in 2000 by the University of Ulster recorded that at April of that year unemployment, one admittedly imperfect indicator of poverty, had reduced by half over the decade and that it was 50% higher in West Belfast than in North Belfast.  Even allowing for figures being fiddled this hardly confirms the SWP argument.

Poverty exists in many communities. It has existed in both Catholic and Protestant areas with completely different political responses. It has existed over a long time, again with widely different political reactions. It must therefore be obvious to those that reflect on these facts for even a moment that it is the political framework that forms the responses to poverty and it is developments in this that must form the centre of analysis.  Not least because it is politics that must be employed to challenge and defeat sectarianism.  In terms of understanding political developments since the beginning of the peace process an understanding that the latter has failed to eradicate poverty and disadvantage will only get us so far.  Socialists should and need to go further.

When we do so we quickly recognise what is acknowledged by many people on the ground, that it is issues of housing and territoriality that are central in North Belfast.  Loyalist intimidation there is not prompted or motivated by anger at poor housing or by sectarian competition for it in a situation of mutual housing need.  What the loyalists have objected to is a growing Catholic population buying or moving into already vacated housing in ‘Protestant’ areas, caused mostly by voluntary emigration from these areas and natural population decline.  Their demand is for religious apartheid.  To imply that the sectarianism in North Belfast is more or less directly a response to poverty, a sectarian competition for resources, is only true at a very general level.  Again this is exactly the explanation given by the media, government and politicians except without their acceptance of responsibility.  In terms of the most recent growth in loyalist sectarianism such an explanation is an apology for loyalist bigotry.

This approach allows the SWP to proceed with an economistic political practice that prioritises economic and social demands and downplays questions of state intervention, particularly by its security apparatus.  This in turn facilitates a seriously wrong-headed approach to the activities of the bureaucrats of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions whom they praise for their recent action even when this is based on an alliance of bosses and government which quite consciously fails to identify the bigots.  They criticise Shirlow’s explanation of sectarianism for ignoring the responsibility of ‘individual politicians, paramilitaries, the government, the police and the system itself..’

Their own analysis fails to declare whether sectarianism has actually increased or to relate such an increase to the peace process.  This is unsurprising.  The peace process was supposed to open up the way for ‘class’ politics, with shrill declarations that there were unprecedented opportunities for the left.  How could they now account for such a (continuing) perspective while simultaneously admitting increased sectarianism or the responsibility for it of the peace process and Good Friday Agreement while refusing to confront either.



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