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UDA row lays bare internal contradictions of new Stormont regime

John McAnulty

21 October 2007

The row about funding for the UDA is not what it seems.  All the participants, even the Stormont minister at the heart of the dispute, Margaret Ritchie, agree that the UDA should receive funds. No-one is searching for genuine community groups or trying to displace the sectarian parasites from Protestant working-class areas where they are feared and hated  The difference is that Ritchie argues that the mechanism for funding, the CTI or Conflict Transformation Initiative, should actually bear fruit and result in a lessening of UDA violence.  Almost everyone else feels that the money should be paid despite UDA feuds, sectarian violence, retention of a large arsenal and criminal activity. 

This unanimity tells us something important about the political process taking place at Stormont and the coalition between the DUP and Sinn Fein.  It has yet to enter the phase where the parties dispute and have to agree a common position.  We are still mechanically applying the various open and hidden clauses of the St Andrews agreement, where everything is set in stone and the two parties have sworn in blood to stand by the deal. The fact that Sinn Fein so actively defend the UDA underlines their subordinate role and the extent to which constant retreat on their part helps stabilise the deal  The reality of instability so early on must be a matter of concern to the British officials who drafted the St. Andrews deal and now oversee it.

The second point to make is that the fact that the UDA position inside the agreement is so vehemently defended is further evidence of the Socialist Democracy belief that the St Andrews agreement is irremediably sectarian and was designed to be so.  One has to remember that the UDA is a small alliance of criminal gangs that has failed over a decade, despite support from the British administration,  to build any sort of party or base in the Protestant working class, that they are universally feared and despised and that they have proved totally unable to draw back from frequent internal armed conflicts, that they enjoy a great deal of immunity, with police and army looking the other way, and that there is a growing weight of evidence that they were largely a straightforward creation of British intelligence, with British agents at every level of the organisation and directing their terror campaign. The whole role of Loyalist paramilitaries inside the political process was thrown into further question by the arrest of Billy Hutchinson and other figures linked to the PUP and UVF in relation to the murder of Catholic schoolboy Thomas Devlin. The fact that Hutchinson was once promoted by the socialist movement as the voice of the Protestant working class and that the UVF were seen as the successful outcome of the conflict transformation process just underlines how corrupt the process is.

The third point is that the instability in the procedure is caused by competition within the sectarian camps established by the St. Andrews process.  So the DUP are outflanked on the right on the Irish language issue by the official unionists, who unilaterally removed Irish from health ministry notices and introduced their own motion for discussion in the assembly as a basis for full-blown sectarian jibes at the language and those who speak it. In contrast DUP minister Poots, in restrained language, justifies a refusal to bring in an Irish language act on grounds of cost, and softens the blow by indicating that he will take measures to support the language and by speaking to a GAA convention shortly after.  The fact that Sinn Fein remained silent and impassive during this performance indicates that both Sinn Fein and the DUP are speaking to a script and that Sinn Fein expects to be compensated by the British in the future.  It is worth bearing in mind however the symbolic nature of the Irish language decision.  It confirms the changes at St. Andrews were designed to indicate that there is not “equality of the two traditions” and that DUP bigotry is the dominant factor in the new settlement.

The same process allows Margaret Ritchie and the SDLP to outflank Sinn Fein to the ‘left’. There is widespread acceptance of the generalised bribery and corruption used to bring more or less every paramilitary group inside the tent of St. Andrews, but that acceptance stops well short of the UDA.  The majority of the population expect some return for the bribery, and the UDA have been in a permanent state of war since the ‘conflict transformation’ funding was awarded.  During the same period Sinn Fein have been vociferous in defence of the UDA, initially criticising Ritchie for ‘withholding money from deprived Protestant communities’ and going on to vote for a DUP interpretation of executive minutes that would automatically have the effect of rendering the Dept of Social Development minister’s ruling illegitimate on procedural grounds.

It would however be a mistake to see the collapse of the current dispensation in the current row. For all the sound and fury, not a single penny has yet been halted on its way to the coffers of the UDA. One should remember that the SDLP are the party most closely tied to the Northern settlement and most enthusiastically in support of it. Margaret Ritchie was at her weakest when reporters pointed out that London, Dublin and Washington had all united in defence of the UDA and to indicate that the deal was set in stone.  She was unable to draw the conclusion offered by the reporters, that all the other forces were conspiring against democracy.  It is all very well to score points off Sinn Fein, another thing to threaten the agreement itself, a point made by the SDLP leader when he offered fulsome support for St, Andrews hours after his minister had been harassed and humiliated by their ‘partners’ in government.

There are however two ways in which the inter-communal rivalry of the DUP/OUP and SF/SDLP could destabilise the settlement.  One is that the major party feels the need to cover its flank.  This is more likely to happen on the unionist side, where there is constant fear of being dubbed a ‘lundy’ and appeaser of Catholics.  There is some indication that the DUP took a more strident line on the Irish language following the sectarian ploy by the Unionists. This is less likely to happen with Sinn Fein, who apply a military discipline to their representatives and live in fear of expulsion from government. What can and has happened is that raised temperatures make the operation of government more difficult – as with the current situation where Peter Robinson of the DUP has openly called Margaret Ritchie a liar.

We are a long way from a working class opposition to the current right-wing coalition of Sinn Fein and the DUP.  However its internal contradictions mean it may fall of its own accord.


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