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Unionists back sectarian campaign in south Belfast

JM Thorn and Joe Craig

2nd  May 2004

On Wednesday 28th April 300 loyalists led by a loyalist band staged a “protest” outside the Whitehall Square apartment block in the Sandy Row area of Belfast calling on its Catholic residents to leave.  The ‘protest’ followed the circulation of leaflets a day earlier calling for Catholics to be driven out of the area – ‘Catholics wouldn’t let us live on the Falls Road – why should we let them live here?’  Local Ulster Unionist councillor, previous Lord Mayor Bob Stoker, refused to condemn them because he ‘hadn’t seen the leaflets so I can’t condemn them,’ although this didn’t prevent him from trying to dismiss them as the work of an individual with access to a computer.

Without doubt the leaflets and subsequent ‘protest’ were orchestrated by a loyalist paramilitary organisation, most likely the UDA.

While the loyalist “protest” was the most high profile example of sectarian intimidation at the apartments, dubbed ‘Vatican Square’ by the bigots even though they have no idea how many of the residents are actually Catholic, there has been an ongoing campaign almost since the time they opened a couple of years ago.  Residents have been abused, their flats attacked with bottles, and sectarian graffiti daubed on the walls, including ‘Taigs Out’.  A year ago when council workers came out to remove graffiti they were attacked by a gang armed with baseball bats and their van burnt out - hardly the work of an individual crank.  One resident on local BBC radio complained that the complex had been subject to attack for hours on one occasion but that despite repeated calls to the police they had failed to turn up.

The most noticeable thing about the recent sectarian outburst was the attitude of local unionist councillors.  They wholeheartedly endorsed the “protest” and were in attendance themselves.  Bob Stoker repeated the risible claims that Whitehall residents were attacking loyalists in Sandy Row, warning ominously – “If people are going to abuse the residents they have to suffer the consequences.”  He called on Catholic residents to leave “voluntarily”.  Of course the reality is that any residents that did leave the Whitehall Square complex would be doing so as a result of threats and coercion. It has already been reported that at least two have since done so although others left before the recent escalation of intimidation.  What else is the presence of loyalist flute band and protesters parading outside homes with banners calling for “Nationalists, Republicans Out” other than sectarian intimidation?  Bob Stoker knows this well, as does his party colleague, former Stormont minister, Michael McGimpsey.  He also supported the protest describing it as “peaceful and fairly mild.”

The ‘justification’ for the attacks is that used in previous loyalist assaults – supposed provocation from Catholics, although a police (PSNI) source said that ‘there is no major problem.  The allegations are pretty much untrue.’  An official statement said ‘we haven’t received reports of any attacks.’  As in previous episodes such as Holy Cross, initial revulsion at naked sectarianism quickly gives way to seeking means by which the bigotry can be appeased.  The two local unionist politicians hosted a meeting of residents during which the developer of the site threatened to evict those who had provoked the local residents.  The problem becomes the residents while the bigots are simply expressing genuine grievances.

This is not just the analysis or policy of bigoted unionist politicians sanctioning and validating sectarianism.  It is the policy of those institutions of the state tasked precisely with combating sectarianism.  The Community Relations Council said ‘we need to look at whether there’s anything that’s generating this size of a reaction, where there is a legitimacy on the community side.  There must be some fear triggering this’ said the council’s chief executive, Duncan Morrow.  In other words we have to find an excuse for the bigotry so that we can pander to it.

The latest ‘Socialist Worker’ may be able to provide just such an excuse.  It says ‘..most of the Sandy Row residents that marched on the apartments are probably not bigots, just people fed up with poverty and looking for someone to blame.’  The problem for the comrades of the Socialist Workers Party is that the marchers were bigots, and if they are not, then who exactly would fit the description?  They also will have a hard job explaining why sectarianism flourished when local residents had jobs in the old traditional industries whose decline they say has caused it.  Make no mistake, this was no misdirected protest against poverty but an exercise in as blatant a demonstration of bigotry as one is likely to see.  The comrades will be worse than useless fighting sectarianism if they can’t see it when it is staring them straight in the eyes.

The comments of Stoker and McGimpsey demonstrate clearly the inherently reactionary nature of unionism.  These two are considered to be on the liberal wing of the party!  Their position makes a nonsense of the idea of a progressive element within unionism which is willing to accommodate nationalists.  The recent events in Sandy Row show that unionists are committed to maintaining inequity and division.  What more graphic illustration of that than the demand for exclusively Protestant neighbourhoods.  Yet the response of nationalist politicians is to call on these same politicians to provide leadership.  No one notices how bizarre the whole situation becomes, with the defenders of Catholic rights calling on those defending loyalist bigotry to strengthen their hold on Protestant workers.  No conception that Protestant workers should reject these politicians or inkling that some still do despite unionist leaders , nationalist leaders and the British State telling them that they belong to the Orange tribe, which should be proud of its wholly reactionary sectarian ‘culture.’

The events in Sandy Row also show the complicity of the state in sectarianism.  Rather than being confronted, it is accommodated.  That is why the PSNI facilitated the loyalist protest, while it was breaking any number of laws, and its ideological wing searches for excuses for the bigotry.  That is why the Equal Opportunities Commission can claim that sectarian violence reduced during the 1990s (does Drumcree not ring any bells?) even while it admits not to counting sectarian attacks.  That is why it is so pathetic that that staunch defender of nationalist rights - Brian Feeney of the ‘Irish News’ – can claim that anti-catholic sectarianism and violence will only be dealt with when unionist sectarianism is dealt with by the law in the same way as racism.  The same law, and the same law and order forces, that have so conspicuously failed in their response to recent attacks on ethnic minorities in the same area.    He calls for action by London and Dublin.  London, which is busily whipping up anti-immigrant racism in Britain and has just been exposed in the Cory report for its collusion with the loyalist bigots behind the Sandy Row event.  Dublin, which has just announced its own racist offensive through McDowell’s referendum, not to mention its admission of failure in trying to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings in 1974 who are being protected by London.

The sectarianism of Unionism.  The impotence of nationalism.  The responsibility of imperialism.  This is the meaning of the cryptic banners carried by the bigots – ‘Sandy Row is Sandy Row.’



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