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The Violence in North Belfast
14th January 2002
A cold place for Unionism
How ironic that on the Monday after sectarian intimidation at Holy Cross school in north Belfast had led to an explosion of rioting; when a second Catholic school was attacked by armed loyalist thugs, Catholic teachers threatened with death, Catholic postal workers similarly threatened and a young Catholic postman murdered by the UDA, the ‘Irish Times’ should commence a series of articles on ‘Northern Ireland: A cold place for unionists.’
The connection is more than one of timing. The theme of unionist alienation has been picked up by loyalist bigots in order to justify their sectarian attacks. Thus Catholic teachers have become legitimate targets because they have ‘antagonised the loyalist community.’ The theme of unionist alienation has received the imprimatur of no less a person than the colonial governor of the Northern Ireland State, British Secretary of State John Reid. This after a year dominated by loyalist violence, hundreds of pipe bombings of Catholic homes and the obscene scenes of sectarian hatred inflicted on very young Catholic schoolchildren. Even official statistics indicate two thirds of violent attacks in the past year to be the work of loyalists. That if it is a ‘cold place’ for unionists it must be bloody freezing for nationalists goes unnoticed by the British State.
Yet the connection is even greater than this. The so-called alienation (or ‘perception’ thereof, which is used to explain that which does not exist) in fact boils down to the rawest sectarian demands that include the right to march unconditionally through Catholic areas while claiming that the same Catholics actually wish to live in Protestant areas and thereby ‘take over.’ The loyalist call for apartheid residential areas is now widely held up as a reasonable demand to be accommodated by the State and its agencies.
After all this, shock is then expressed that loyalist violence engulfs much of North Belfast in violence and claims yet another tragic victim. ‘Northern Ireland: a cold place for unionists’ neatly encapsulates the dynamic which has brought us to this sorry pass and the direction we are still called upon to go. So the front page editorial in the ‘Irish News’ states that ‘…the most important contribution of all which could be made by Sinn Fein would be to endorse and become actively involved in our new policing structures.’
Thus despite republican acceptance of partition and a new Stormont Assembly, the union flag over Sinn Fein minister’s offices and surrender of IRA weapons, unionist alienation demands more. How much more can be seen in the apparent ‘antagonism’ which the existence of Catholic teachers in Protestant areas creates for the ‘loyalist community.’
The latest violence erupted after increasing loyalist intimidation and harassment of Holy Cross parents led to a clash between parents and loyalists and a confrontation between Catholic parents and police when the former, believing their school under attack attempted to go to it in its defence. This led to further confrontations between loyalists and nationalists and between nationalists and police. Later a shotgun attack on three Catholic youths at Ardoyne shops was carried out by loyalists and a young Protestant school pupil from the Boys’ Model Secondary School was injured when Catholics stoned school buses taking pupils home from school. A number of other schools closed the following day in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear while Holy Cross School was closed in anticipation of another loyalist blockade.
The following day UDA men, a number of them armed, entered a Catholic girl’s school in a largely Protestant area and attacked teacher’s cars. The UDA then made the threat against teacher’s lives and those of other Catholic school workers. Later the same day the media featured heavily the transport of Protestant pupils from the Model schools in police landrovers past a crowd of nationalist youth that had formed part way across the pupil’s main road home. UDA representatives were on hand to claim that this showed the intimidation that Protestant children faced from republicans, although their presence there, and the fact that the majority of pupils got their normal bus home, reinforced the view that this was a propaganda exercise. That the new Police Service for Northern Ireland facilitated it will come as a surprise only to those who believe a new name means a new organisation.
Most media images focused on the rioting between nationalist youth and the police. This appeared to fit the analysis of unionist politicians who insisted the original confrontation at Holy Cross and the subsequent conflict was a carefully orchestrated plan by republicans to push their own political agenda. In fact a sober analysis of the position of the republicans makes it clear that in such episodes they are likely to be the biggest political losers. This is so for a number of reasons.
Republican claims to be able to protect nationalists ring hollow when loyalists carry out attacks and issue threats. Decommissioning in such circumstances can clearly be seen as representing the admission that republicans have no role to play. Support for the new RUC thus comes a step closer with every such confrontation, as the ‘Irish News’ editorial demonstrates. What, rank and file republicans and indeed others might reasonably ask, is the benefit of a peace process if Catholic children cannot even get to school. Even more acutely, what’s the point of Martin McGuinness being minister of education? The possible closure of Holy Cross loomed large as both school authorities and some parents said that neither they nor their children could go through another period of loyalist blockade.
The predictable response to the violence came from the predictable sources. Quite useless appeals were made to the sectarians to stop and politicians struggled with their limited imaginations to try to make their asinine comments sound equal to the situation. Sinn Fein made an appeal to unionist politicians to put pressure on the UDA.
The fault it was generally agreed, appeared to be the lack of community dialogue, as if a dialogue between catholic parents and loyalist paramilitaries whose demands, when their raw bigotry allows them to articulate them, is one of sectarian exclusion, could result in any just solution. This has led to the farcical element of community experts being drafted in to allow the loyalists to actually articulate a demand which the British, through the new local institutions, could accede to. Commentators ignored the fact that it was not cross-community dialogue that brought an end to the recent loyalist blockade and that capitulation to bigotry invites further sectarian demands and further capitulation. Just as the Good Friday Agreement has a reactionary dynamic built into it so also does its local replica have a sectarian logic at its core.
A second response, illustrated by the ‘Irish News,’ has been a call for support to the new RUC. This conveniently forgets that force’s long established collusion with the UDA and its widely noted failure, even by the SDLP and Southern government, to make any inroads against those involved in the year-long series of attacks on Catholic homes. This contrasts sharply with their ability to round up, almost at will, republican dissidents involved in their hopeless quest to re-launch armed action.
A third theme has involved focusing on the poor social and economic conditions in working class areas of north Belfast. This is latched onto by those, including the British actually responsible for the conditions, as a means of giving some legitimacy to loyalist protest and a way of covering concessions given to them. Socialists must be very clear that the oppression suffered by all working class people in north Belfast is not the object of loyalist protests. Loyalism in fact turns the bitterness, disillusionment and despair created by such conditions within the Protestant working class into sectarian competition with their fellow Catholic workers. This competition is directed into sectarian attacks and distorts working class reaction against their economic and social position in such a way that it actually strengthens the state that presides over and defends these conditions.
In other societies it has been the trade union movement that has been a vehicle for working class protest at economic and social disadvantage. However, for nearly everyone in working class communities in the north the unions are viewed as irrelevant. The last week has threatened to leave particular union leaders with absolutely no cover for their cowardice and timidity. The northern head of the Catholic teacher’s union, the Irish National Teacher’s Organisation (INTO), that through the Holy Cross dispute had buried its head in the sand up to its neck, came out and said that strike action would be taken in protest against the attacks on Catholic schools. This step forward is immediately nullified by its target not being the state which has sponsored the loyalist paramilitaries and conciliated their sectarianism but the sectarians themselves, in the form of an appeal for them to stop.
This follows the traditional union bureaucracy’s road of fighting sectarianism – ignore its predominantly loyalist character and crucially its sponsorship by the state. ‘All’ sectarianism is denounced while avoiding the origin and dynamic of the real sectarianism that exists. This has become the acceptable face of anti-sectarianism to such a degree that to point to the facts, that it is loyalism that is the prime sectarian movement and the British state that is its foundation, is itself labelled sectarian!
The task of socialists at present is to present a clear analysis of the nature of the sectarian conflict workers are being dragged into and how it is not an aberration from the peace process and Good Friday Agreement (GFA) but the implantation of that process at street level. Just as at state level, the task is to politically oppose the GFA and present a democratic and socialist alternative. It thus means not only rejection of loyalism but also of republicanism. Such a task not only involves the workers in north Belfast but the rest of the Irish working class without which a socialist alternative will fail to provide the working people of the area with hope of a way out of their present mire.