Workers, loyalists and socialists
The left response to the northern riots
14 April 2020
The most positive element to arise from the flames of loyalist rioting was a mobilisation by bus drivers in Belfast on April 8, following an attack on a driver and the burning of a bus on the Shankill Road. The buses encircled the City Hall and the drivers gave notice that any further attacks would see the withdrawal of services from the area concerned.
The action was effective and admirable. Its one weakness was that it was defensive. Workers’ interventions have legs, a general respect and authority within the working class as a whole. A broader intervention is possible. What is absent is the political movement that would make that happen.
Just over 100 years ago, on the verge of formation of the Orange state, Unionist leader Edward Carson ordered a mass pogrom of the Belfast shipyards. Over seven thousand were expelled, roughly a quarter of the workforce; all the Catholics and almost 2000 “Rotten Prods” who were mostly socialists.
The Labour and trade union movement has never recovered from that day and from the subsequent partition of the country and the working class. The watchword from labourites, the Communist Party and the union leaders is neutrality between Orange and Green. When the Orange monster awakes they stand aside.
One leftist, Patrick Mulholland, assistant secretary of the public sector union NIPSA, spoke at the bus drivers meeting and advocated a united workers mobilisation. The call was muffled by the standard neutrality. The workers should rise against reactionaries, but who they are is never stated. It's not the loyalists, but mysterious sectarians who exist on all sides. The call was also bombastic. He brought no delegation from NIPSA and proposed no action by his union.
Much worse was the role of People before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll. He turned up on the Springfield Road alongside Sinn Fein. The role of local youth was to go home. Neutral bread and butter demonstrations about economic issues were good. Responding to loyalist attacks was bad and divisive.
Of course chaotic rioting would not help the situation and may have put the population in danger, but surely there was a role in defending the area by building barricades, securing the area, organising a chain of command?
That's not what Sinn Fein and PbP were doing. They were not facing outwards towards a loyalist threat, but inwards towards nationalist resistance with the aim of smothering it.
Left out of the "go home" message was the second half of the sentence - "leave it to the police". If there was any doubt about this Carroll was asked the next day on the Stephen Nolan BBC radio show if he supported the police and he confirmed this was the case
The police moved in and dispersed the nationalist youth with maximum force, sending a message to loyalism that they could be relied upon to keep a lid on the nationalists.
The irony of the Carroll interview on the Springfield Road was that it took place within a few metres of Bombay Street. In August 1969 the street was burnt to the ground by a loyalist mob with the collaboration of the state, marking a full blown sectarian suppression of the civil rights movement.
Would he have applied "the workers unite on bread and butter issues" to that situation?
There is one further irony that should not be ignored. The loyalists support Brexit
The main thing to be picked up from the rioting is that loyalism is weaker than in the past. They support Brexit but are horrified by the sea border. A sizable section of unionism opposes Brexit and the process is clearly causing both political and economic damage to the movement. The aim, of changing the EU/British protocol, is not achievable without a sharp change in the British government's perspective on its interests. The mobilisation on the streets was weak and the loyalists had to up the ante by attacking nationalist areas in order to get a response.
The response to the riots shows an army of people striving to save unionism from itself. The state apparatus, Sinn Fein, the British, the Dublin government, the unions and the majority on the left all agree that loyalism must be conciliated. The happy clappy vision of a United Ireland is now being amended to include the Union Jack, the Royal family and sectarian division dressed as cultural diversity.
The task of socialists is to build workers unity, not by holding hands in a cross community space, but by building opposition to capitalism and imperialism, by opposing the reactionary force of loyalism in the working class and by advancing the call for a workers republic and a United Socialist States of Europe.
In advancing the neutrality argument the NIPSA assistant secretary said that these political struggles had nothing to do with the working class. That's not an accurate statement. He himself not only supported Brexit, but pushed a resolution to that effect through NIPSA, making it union policy. PbP also support Brexit, in addition to arguing for a left government in Dublin led by Sinn Fein as the way forward for workers. Over a hundred days of utter reaction in Britain, alongside the sectarian attacks in the North, have not led to a change of heart.
The Northern administration is a sinkhole of corruption sitting on top of a society permeated by sectarianism and dominated by Britain. The next period will see a concentrated effort to secure the shaky edifice through conciliation of loyalism.
The socialists in Ireland should oppose these reactionary plans by remembering that they formally oppose the political settlement, by breaking from partnership with the union bosses, by not sowing illusions in Sinn Fein as a party of the left, by opposing the ongoing censorship of northern issues by the state broadcaster.
A starting point would be an acknowledgement of the reality of Brexit and the need to oppose the tide of reaction that has followed.