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The Holy Trinity – a decaying unionism fights for rebirth
London, Dublin provide the kiss of life

John McAnulty

19th September 2005

Anyone taking seriously the idea that the loyalist September uprising was a spontaneous reaction to the Parades Commission’s restrictions on an Orange parade on Belfast’s Springfield Road is allowing themselves to be led astray. The uprising was part of a standard loyalist stratagem best described as the Holy Trinity, when all the component elements of the Unionist alliance are drawn together and the Orange rabble are let loose to enforce their programme of sectarian reaction.

In the mechanism of the Holy Trinity the Unionist political parties articulate the demands for sectarian supremacy. The Orange Order demonstrate that supremacy and attempt mass sectarian intimidation on the streets, and the Loyalist paramilitaries translate that into a programme of violence and ethnic cleansing directed at the nationalist population.

The Holy Trinity has been reborn time and time again in the course of the current Irish troubles. The British attempt to save the loyalists from themselves by agreeing ‘reform’ that co-opts nationalism in the task of preserving the Orange state while stopping well short of tackling the endemic sectarianism on which the state is based. The loyalists balk at even the slightest sign of concessions and stage a revolt. The British retreat in order to maintain the loyalist base on which their occupation of Ireland rests. The loyalists then counterattack in the hope of enforcing their own programme of apartheid and absolute sectarian privilege. They fail, but win further concessions.

Paisley’s victory

In this case the Loyalist victory was the victory of the bigots of Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Their triumph in the May elections spelt the final death for the Good Friday Agreement and forced the Republicans, urged on by London, Dublin and Washington, to accept ‘Good Friday Lite’ where they agreed to disarm and engage in a process of finally offering full support to the police and state forces in the British colony and in return got, not the trappings of Government, but a promise that imperialism would stand beside them in demanding the return of the local Stormont assembly. The argument was that the DUP in their heart of hearts were as corrupt in their sectarianism as the Provos were in their reformism and that Paisley’s lieutenants were secretly in favour of the settlement they publicly denounced.

This is a serious misreading of the situation. The DUP have become the leading party of unionism through being seen as the most effective defenders of sectarian privilege and the most determined opponents of Catholics in Government in general and of republicans in particular. Since their election victory they have been organising to resist any British pressure to negotiate (after all, they have yet to even formally meet Sinn Fein) and to move onto the offensive, bringing down the vague promises of ‘Good Friday Lite’ even as they form. One particular announcement – that the government intended to disband the RIR – the Protestant militia within the British army – was hardly serious (earlier promises to disband the RUC Reserve and Special Branch were not honoured) and was probably intended to tempt the DUP into the negotiations. Instead it brought forward the DUP plan to reassemble the Orange monster and stage yet another revolt. Again – the DUP victory ended a debate within Unionism, not for and against the Good Friday agreement, but whether it was better to erode it from inside or confront it from without. The task now facing Paisley was to convert the strategy into a movement on the ground.

The DUP began to pull together the traditional informal alliance of Party, Orange Order and paramilitaries. They were aided by the need of their enemies in the Official Unionists to move sharply right – a task accomplished by the new leader, Reg Empey, when he declared that the parades issue must be resolved (in favour of the sectarians) before any political deal had been struck. At the same time the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which had provided muscle for the Official Unionists, had also to shake off the extremely thin cloak of a fake moderation and socialism (Actually a sort of emperor’s new cloak, visible only to fans in the media and the soft left) and re-establish their roots as the most hard-line sectarian organisation. This they did by waging all-out war on the rival LVF while at the same time carrying out ethnic cleansing and the sectarian murder of Catholic civilians.

Sectarian attacks

The new atmosphere began to be visible immediately after the DUP victory with a sharp rise on sectarian attacks on Catholics. It has grown day after day since then, amounting almost to a silent pogrom across the North and an actual full-scale pogrom in the village of Ahoghill, where the tiny Catholic population are being driven from their homes and the village is adorned with posters urging unionists to prevent the ‘dilution of their strength’ by ‘exterminating the enemies of Ulster’. The DUP stronghold of North Antrim is the focus of nightly attack on schools, churches and homes. The pattern is replicated at the sectarian interfaces in Belfast, culminating in the random sectarian killing of a young Catholic schoolboy by the UVF and an attack on a Catholic postman leaving him close to death. The Orange demonstrations in July saw a fresh upsurge and the North was plastered with the Union Jack and the flags of the loyalist death squads. In the background the new, DUP majority councils enforce a more rigid division of sectarian spoils at local level and raw exhibitions of sectarian hatred – a recent example is when the freedom of the city of Lisburn was conferred on prison screws. One councillor recounted the sadistic delight that his prison officer friends had taken in the suffering of republican hunger strikers and cited this as a primary motive for the honour!

Intimidation moved on towards revolt with a vicious ‘Love Ulster’ campaign at the beginning of September, opening with a special edition of the Loyalist paper the Shankill Mirror, presenting Catholics as blood-drenched animals and calling for a crude sectarian unity to defend the good old days of full-blown unionist rule. The paper was landed at Larne harbour in a mawkish re-enactment of the guns landed by the UVF in the 1914 drive to secure the sectarian state and partition Ireland. The DUP members wept crocodile tears while Jackie McDonald, UDA ‘brigadier’ and notorious sectarian thug unloaded the papers, the various component parts of hypocrisy and thuggery held together by their common allegiance to Orangeism had now been bound and the ‘Holy Trinity’ was born anew.

The Springfield Orange march, and the riots that followed were not therefore, as British secretary of state Peter Hain claimed, the dying embers of an isolated minority, but the first shots in a Unionist revolt that aims to bury any British modernisation plan. The claim that the riots were in some sense the spontaneous outcome of loyalist frustration don’t bear a seconds thought. Rather than having suffered a summer of humiliation, the marching season had been a triumph for the Orange. With the exception of the ritual standoff at Drumcree and the Springfield march itself, the sectarian marches had been forced through everywhere by the police. In addition, Sinn Fein, told that the Unionists were putting forward the marches as a barrier to a new deal, had substantially softened their line. To the now traditional role of policing nationalist anger at Ardoyne was added an ‘historic agreement’ leading to the first Orange march through the centre of Derry in over a decade.

‘A conflagration that could not be put out’

The riots were not spontaneous. The march had been pushed through in the past on promises of talks and non-provocative behaviour. The last march had been filled with violent sectarian taunts and the promised talks had never taken place. The state response was not to ban the march but simply to re-route it 100 metres. The Orange could at any time have held talks with the residents but refused to do so. They postponed their march in order to make sure that the main Orange demonstrations would proceed and that they would then be able to mobilise the machinery of the Orange Order as a whole to push the march through. The reality of the march, an offensive by the Holy Trinity of unionist reaction, was made manifest as it assembled. Ian Paisley issued a statement warning of ‘a conflagration that could not be put out’. The Orange Order issued a call to arms to bring all of its supporters on to the streets. The UVF declared that paramilitary weapons were on hand and would be used to force the march through.

The British response has been containment and conciliation and an attempt to divide and rule. The Unionists claim that that there has been state savagery and attempted repression, but the mob do not determine the policy of the sectarian state and history is full of examples of the police, in the guise of the RUC, finding themselves in vicious armed conflict with the Orange mob when they overstep the role assigned to them. In fact the evidence on this occasion is in the other direction. The period before and after the Orange march involved loyalist protests that halted traffic all over Belfast. In most cases the demonstrations were tiny and it was the police who prevented the movement of traffic. During the demonstration, when loyalist gunmen attacked the state forces, fire was not returned and the police and army waited for the riot to play itself out.

The UVF was specified as being no longer on ceasefire, but it has been on full war footing for several months without government action. The UDA escaped any action by issuing a statement saying that it opposed violence! The specification does not seem to mean that the UVF will be cut off from the state funds that sustain its front organisation the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) or that the ranks of ‘community workers’ will lose funding.

Politically the Police chief, Hugh Orde, launched a savage attack on the Orange rabble, while British secretary of state Peter Hain complained that it was ‘not loyalism but gangsterism’. (Hain must have sense of humour. How can he tell the difference? Certainly the Loyalists can’t – when they hijacked a coach during the violence they could not resist robbing the pensioners that were being carried on it).


However, condemnation was followed by appeasement – the violence was the result of unionist demoralisation and anomie and these must be addressed. Appeasement was followed by appeals for leadership to rein in the rabble and Hain saw this as coming from the ‘from the Orange Order, from loyalist groups, from the unionist parties’ – that is the trinity that had launched the uprising! 

The strategy of appealing for unionist leadership was supported by the British, the Dublin government and by Sinn Fein. It began to fail even as it was enunciated. The unionists were providing leadership – it was they who were leading the uprising and they were not slow to rub their opponents’ noses in the reality of the situation. Unionist politicians withdrew from Belfast’s district policing partnership. To rub salt in the wounds, the announcement was made by the North and West Belfast Parades Forum – the triple alliance of politicians, Orangemen and paramilitaries who had planned the confrontation and to whom the British were appealing for leadership! Finally the ‘Love Ulster’ campaign front announced plans for a mass rally in Belfast at the end of October. The British and Nationalists warned of the danger of violence, as if they had no knowledge of Paisley’s career as a sectarian rabble-rouser.

The fantasy of ‘Protestant demoralisation’ is just as thin as the fantasy of a non-violent and law-abiding unionist leadership. That’s not to say that there is no demoralisation. Workers in unionist areas are no longer able to structure their lives around the shipbuilding, engineering and linen industries where most jobs were historically reserved for Protestants. They are at the mercy of loyalist paramilitaries who they despise, whom they reject at every election but who are protected by the state and prey upon the areas with vast drug, extortion and prostitution rackets. A good example is the Village area in South Belfast. It is well-placed to provide housing for nearby hospital and university staff and would benefit from the services and employment that would follow. Instead a parasitic loyalism drives away outsiders with a mix of racism and sectarianism and preys upon the residents trapped with them.

But it’s not the workers who lead the riots. It’s the hard core of bigots. Reporters who toured loyalist areas and questioned the bigots about their demoralisation were fed the usual sectarian sewage that passes for loyalist political thought. ‘The Catholics are getting everything’ – Catholics remain twice as likely to be unemployed. ‘We lost our police force ‘ – The PSNI/RUC is still over 80% Protestant. And they were just as likely in the past as they are now to give the loyalists a bloody nose if they overstep the mark. The main element of policing in the current period has been to conciliate the loyalists. ‘Our area doesn’t get any funding’ – peace funds are meant to buy off both loyalist and republican activists but in the loyalist areas it goes directly into the pockets of gangsters (One famous story is of former loyalist leader ‘Mad Dog’ Adair getting his hands on an environmental grant and using it to cover the Shankill Road in daubs of the loyalist colours of red, white and blue. He then led an attack on a Nationalist area to give it the same paint job.

The British resuscitate the corpse

The loyalist offensive is intended to come to a peak in October, but is very unlikely to be able to force the British to abandon their attempts to set up a coalition administration. The protests are on a tiny scale compared to those that followed the Drumcree standoff. Already the campaign is showing the political incoherence that blind bigotry generates. After the siege of Catholic schoolchildren at Holy Cross, it became difficult to end the siege because the British couldn’t get any coherent demands from the bigots. Today they have a demand form Paisley for lots of money and one from one of his henchmen for the abolition of the Parades Commission, but no coherent programme has emerged. Also, Paisley has won a political majority among unionist voters, but many have abstained in the vote and of those who did vote, the majority have not supported the miniature uprising.

But to see this is to see only half the story. In the same way that in Catholic theology the Holy Trinity are subsumed into one godhead, so the sectarian trinity of Party, Orange Order and paramilitary groups is supported and maintained by British imperialism. The current spat is very far from changing this relationship.

The months preceding the Springfield march, and the week since, show British anxiety to conciliate Unionism. Above all we have seen a police force, the PSNI, identical to its old sectarian alter ego, the RUC.

  • A killing spree by the UVF went largely unremarked.
  • Hundreds of UVF thugs were able to take over the loyalist estate of Garnerville while the police looked on (the estate is beside the police headquarters).
  • Sectarian attacks in Ballymena were ascribed by the local RUC/PSNI commander to the decision by local republicans to hold a march – the attacks had been going on for months before the march announcement.
  • The RUC/PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Paul Leighton.saw sectarianism as “an element” in the Ahoghill pogrom but so too was “people not getting on with each other”. The police offered fire blankets to Catholic residents – a not so subtle message that they should not look to the police for protection.
  • The murder of Catholic schoolboy Tom Devlin was never affirmed as sectarian by the police.
  • The period before during and after the loyalist riots were marked by conciliation and police co-operation in blocking roads. Savage criticism was delivered at the Orange rabble and was always linked to fervent pleas to the leaders of the parties, the Orangemen and the paramilitaries to show leadership and support law and order – a request the leaders had no problem in refusing.

The steps towards the Good Friday Agreement were called by the former SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. He was mocking past republican insistence on a united Ireland and indicating that only a sectarian compromise under British rule would work. The new period could be called ‘post Sunningdale for slow learners’ where we learn, as we did after the Sunningdale agreement and the unionist revolt, that there can be only one a top dog in a sectarian society.

Decay continues

The Paisleyite victory has not halted the decay of unionism. The class alliances of the past have weakened. Many unionists do not vote and those who do have little enthusiasm for being led up the hill once again by the arch-bigot who has led them there so many times in the past. The danger comes not from the victory of Paisley, but from the determination of the British to preserve and invigorate the rotting corpse. This determination has already made it clear that promises to republicans to press Paisley into coalition talks are to be forgotten. Not only are they forgotten, but the British will be meeting with the leaders of unionism – the leaders who rose against them – to discuss Protestant demoralisation – that is to concede more in terms of bribes and political concessions at the alter of sectarian reaction. The republicans will be asked to do their bit, to concede more, because not for one moment will the British consider a solution that does not leave their bigoted allies in place – the ‘democratic’ justification for the occupation of Ireland.

The new element in the current situation is the rabid determination of Dublin government to placate the Paisleyites and force a stability to partition, no matter how sectarian or unjust. Mary McAleese, the Irish president, met UDA ‘brigadier’ Jackie McDonald just before the uprising and just after he had helped launch the sectarian ‘Love Ulster’ campaign. Apparently the pair are friends, with the President’s husband a golfing partner of McDonald. Even more explicit was the position of Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell. Famous for never missing a chance to condemn republican violence, his reaction to loyalist violence was quite different. True republicanism, he proclaimed, meant conceding to the Orange brethren.

Any fight for democracy in Ireland has to defeat Paisleyism. Standing behind Paisley the Irish working class will find Britain and Irish capitalism. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Irish republicanism cannot lead that fight.



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