It's the DUP stupid!
Loyalist riots mark an explosive decay of unionism
11 April 2021
The loudest sound to be heard across Ireland on the night of Wednesday 7th of April was a sigh of relief from the media. They finally had an explanation for the growing violence sweeping across the North of Ireland.
What made this possible was the involvement of nationalist youth in rioting on the Springfield Road area of Belfast. Immediately the old Northern Ireland playbook was deployed: sectarian division, intercommunal violence, tit for tat, cultural divisions.
None of these are the major factors in the current violence, but they will serve as cover while the British, Irish and US governments scrabble to restore stability to fundamentally unstable political structures.
Nationalist youth make up a tiny part of the picture. Some came out to defend their areas from direct attack and some to seek revenge on the cops. The hegemonic political force in nationalism - Sinn Fein - are only interested in conciliating loyalism and restoring the status quo, so there are no general nationalist mobilisations. The current events are driven by a crisis within loyalism - specifically a crisis in the Democratic Unionist Party.
Unionism, as a far-right party, naturally aligned itself with the Brexiteer element of the British Tory party. Boris Johnson betrayed them and, in order to get a deal done, agreed the Irish sea border. For customs purposes, the North of Ireland remains within EU regulatory provision and this means checks on some goods moving from Britain to the Irish colony.
The DUP saw Brexit as a way of enforcing the land border in Ireland and were willing to ignore the economic interests of many of their supporters. Instead of this happening the political structure of the UK, specifically the status of the Irish colony, was weakened by the deal.
The DUP were caught in a scissors. Their obvious incompetence and the negative political and economic consequences of Brexit meant that voters on the right moved towards the Traditional Unionist Voice party, while more moderate unionists were moving towards the pro-union Alliance party.
There was also a scissors mechanism inside the party. The credibility of DUP leader Arlene Foster, as with all former leaders, had decayed over time. Some members were jockeying for position to replace her on the right and generally ministers were acting for their own factions and ignoring Foster and the moribund, supposedly collective, administration.
The crisis built around the custom regulations between Britain and the North. The claim was that loyalist paramilitaries had mobilised to threaten workers inspecting goods in Larne Port. This was fake news, generated by a local unionist council and repudiated by police and by the trade unions. The council withdrew workers from the ports and then agricultural minister Poots followed suit with his department workers, this time in the face of directly contrary police advice.
Later a temporary replacement for Poots, Gordon Lyons, announced a halt to building work for permanent inspection facilities. He did not have legal authority to do this - in fact the department has a legal responsibility to carry out the work - but he quoted uncertainty about the future and a broader responsibility to preserve the constitutional link with Britain.
A sign of the internal political collapse within the DUP came when Foster, asked to assert her authority, said that the issue would be resolved by the courts.
Events following were driven by a standard playbook. When in trouble the DUP talk up the threat to the union, bring in the unionist paramilitaries and call for pan-unionist unity.
Foster met with the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), which says it speaks for the Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commando and Ulster Defence Association, to plan for a campaign against the Brexit rules. A number of these organisations are still illegal and are actively involved in drug dealing and extortion. The LCC, initially set up with the support of Tony Blair aide Jonathan Powell, assured everyone that the campaign would be peaceful. No-one believed them.
Two sparks lit the flame. One was a decision by the police to move against the most extreme elements in loyalism by targeting the drugs trade in East Antrim. The other was a decision by the authorities that a mass Republican funeral that tore up covid restrictions would not lead to any prosecutions. This corruption of the judicial system is commonly applied to political parties and paramilitaries, but such a brazen application by Sinn Fein led to loyalist outrage.
In fact, the rioting that followed was fairly limited and involved small numbers. There is a lot of deprivation, but loyalist claims that this is because nationalists are getting too many resources has less purchase than in the past. Fairly substantial sectors of loyalism, mindfully of the enormous stream of community funding, stood aside from the riots. The nightly attacks maintained themselves mainly because of a standard police response to loyalism - keep things low key and try to negotiate and conciliate.
However, the paramilitaries realised they were having little impact and upped the ante by advancing on nationalist areas and breaking through a gate into the Springfield Road area of Belfast. Nationalist youths came out to defend the area and the state and media, with a sigh of relief, announced that the problem was intercommunal violence. A further escalation was announced by the loyalists, with groups ordered to assemble and march on nationalist areas and a major demonstration for the centre of Belfast. Later, in Carrickfergus, the UVF ordered the removal of Catholic families from a housing estate.
What followed was kept largely private. Arlene Foster spoke to the Chief Constable, whose resignation she had been demanding. The police, not for the first time, met the paramilitary groups, some of whom are still illegal. The police announced that we were to ignore our lying eyes and accept that the UVF and LCC had not organised the riots.
The Government quietly threw £10m of public cash at a project to help paramilitary gangs to 'transition' into community groups in Belfast Derry and Carrickfergus
The police, in contrast to their low-key approach to the loyalist rioting, launched a ferocious attack on nationalists on the Springfield Road, using massed Land Rovers, water cannon, plastic bullets and attack dogs. The message was unmistakable. Loyalism had not been supplanted. The police were on their side and would keep the nationalists in their place.
Other elements of discussions with the DUP and paramilitaries were kept secret, but whatever was agreed, the LCC, whom we are told, did not organise the riots, then called them off, citing the need to salute the royal funeral as a reason for postponement.
There is more to be said. The loyalist mobilisation was relatively small scale. Both nationalists and unionists are largely indifferent to an utterly corrupt political establishment and most unionists don't see the administrative regulations around Brexit as the existential threat the DUP proclaim. A recent GoFundMe campaign to fight the protocol in the courts, with a target of £200,000, raised £20,000. The issue of the riots was not the potential of loyalism to generate a sectarian bloodbath, but the need to keep the DUP in the administration and the political settlement alive.
The longer-term threat now comes from the British, Sinn Fein and Irish capitalism. If the political structures are to be preserved there must be a new drive to conciliate Unionism. That will involve more toadying by Sinn Fein, more censorship by the Irish state broadcasting company and more action by the British state to convince loyalists that they remain top dog and that nationalists will be kept in their place.
The future looks bleak. The loyalist paramilitaries have found a way of gaining the attention of the authorities and are unlikely to give up on the threat to advance on nationalist areas. The infighting in the DUP will continue, as will the need to play the Orange card and unite with the paramilitaries. We are approaching 100 years of partition in Ireland. The British have tried to promote a jolly cross community atmosphere, but, reason the Orangemen, if this isn't the time to rub the nationalist's noses in the dirt, when is? That impulse will grow as the 12th July parades come closer.
The DUP political decay is shown by the lack of demands. They want the removal of the NI Protocol and hope to see the old land border return, but the British will not respond to their demands where doing so would collapse an already atrocious economic agreement with the EU, although there is a remote possibility that Johnson would go for a hard border as part of a kamikaze attack on the rights of British workers.
In the North many remember that it was the DUP'S fervent support for Brexit and sabotaging of the compromise proposed by Theresa May that left them in the current situation. It does not help that the North is the poorest area in the UK and will be adversely affected by the outworkings of the EU deal.
Left to themselves they would have political structures in the area collapsed in a week. There is a fairy story that the decay of the DUP could see Sinn Fein provide the First Minister in a revived administration. Current events show the reality. Sharing power with nationalists is only palatable if unionism is the top dog. The alternative is the political violence of the recent past on a much greater scale.
The main countervailing tendency is the desperation of Irish Nationalism to keep the show on the road at any price. Sinn Fein, accompanied by sidekicks from the People before Profit group, swamped the Springfield Road area to face down local youth, thus signing up to the communal violence narrative. The next morning leader Michelle O'Neill chambered into a black mourning dress to offer fulsome praise for the deceased British Royal consort and the Royal family generally.
They are matched by the Irish government, declaring the need for emergency action to reassure loyalism and promising to do all it can to soften the requirements of the EU-British protocol.
It should not be forgotten that the riots leave important elements of nationalist strategy in tatters. Sinn Fein, supported by the Communist Party and People Before Profit group, have been waving a border poll as a shiny trinket to assure their supporters that a United Ireland is just around the corner. For their part the Irish government and state broadcasters have been running a narrative of a United Ireland/shared Ireland in the sweet by and by, snuggling up to some of the biggest bigots in the DUP and no platforming nationalists who reference that bigotry. Just how convincing are these narratives today?
The Good Friday Agreement was signed 23 years ago. The structures it built collapse regularly. There is a shift to the right, a period of calm and then more collapse. Twenty-three years later it is still collapsing. Any rational analysis would proclaim it a failure. In reality imperialism and capitalism are determined to keep it in place, and that will require violence against the working class and a persistent distortion of history.