Loyalist bonfire victory in Belfast
Can this be compensated for by dreams of a future modernity?
24 July 2019
In the aftermath of the paramilitary victory at a Belfast "11th night" bonfire, correspondents were quick to spread an emollient salve over the bruised egos of sections of the middle class.
Following UVF threats and the leaking of the names of private contractors charged with dismantling an illegal bonfire in the car pack of a local council leisure centre, police and council workers withdrew and triumphant loyalists went ahead with their bonfire.
A pyrrhic victory proclaimed the commentators. Society is moving on. The bonfires, and the Orange demonstrators generally, are becoming less popular and less respectable.
This is to confuse two separate things. The popular base of loyalism and its material base in mass Protestant employment in shipbuilding and engineering has declined. But this is not the sole element of their power. The patronage of the British state is still there and in fact is amply demonstrated by the council and the police in the current incident. The demonstrators were a few hundred. The UVF members are well known and their ability to intimidate is due to the level of impunity extended by the state. Support by the extensively bribed Orange leadership was lukewarm. Yet still the loyalists prevailed. Why?
Council policy is based around a £500 000 funding split between Sinn Fein and the DUP. The loyalist element of funding is not meant to stop bonfires, despite the obvious sectarian provocations, but to use a combination of bribes and pressure to house train the builders and reduce the obvious impunity with which they operate The bribes for bonfire displacement are so generous that many of last year's grants, awarded in July, were spent for Xmas festivities. Impunity is demonstrated when firefighters routinely hose down homes at risk, but not the bonfires themselves.
The police story is that defiance of the law, intimidation and sectarianism are not matters for the police, but matters of dialogue in the wider community.
The new chief constable, Simon Byrne, proved his fitness for the job by explaining away their inaction. The UVF should watch out. The police had many specialist units to hand, operating undercover, and they would target the UVF throughout the year.
Unfortunately for Simon, the facts did not match the rhetoric. It emerged that the police had had a meeting with the leader of the east Belfast UVF. They explained that this was not a formal meeting. Graffiti threatening civilian contractors remained on walls for several days while police and council argued about responsibility. Above all stood the spectre of Cantrell Close. Two years ago the UVF forced catholic families out of an area designated as shared accommodation. The role of the police was to deliver the threats on behalf of the paramilitaries. The local DUP MP ran cover for the paramilitaries. The area is now routinely bedecked with loyalist flags and anti-IRA banners each Twelfth season.
The immediate losers in this situation are Sinn Fein. Their tranche of bribes kicks in in August through the funding for Belfast Feile week, when they must tell nationalist youth to attend pop festivals rather than proclaim dissatisfaction from behind bonfires. This task has become much more difficult, but the propaganda element of the Feile has been stepped up, with claims that a united Ireland is just around the corner, historical reminiscences proving their revolutionary credentials and a fireside chat with the far right Nelson McCausland establishing their diplomatic skills in dealing with loyalism. The icing on the cake is the new James Connolly Centre, which they unselfconsciously proclaim as “Belfast’s latest visitor experience,”
Next year more desperate efforts will be made to tone down bonfire sectarianism, but the question of confronting sectarianism and state collusion in its expression will not arise.
The decay of the material base of much of loyalism and the new role of Sinn Fein have created a popular consciousness that a wave of modernism will transform northern society.
This imagining is not new and is not true. Political institutions do not operate or else operate to share out bribes. Top civil servants run the state with a few Westminster politicians at their side. Civil servants do not minute political decisions and police do not recognise sectarian intimidation. Brexit has already depressed the local economy and the savage austerity of the " Fresh Start" programme has yet to fully kick in.
A rosy glow of modernity and cultural diversity
will not do. A consciousness of capitalist and imperialist oppression is
a precondition for serious progress.