The recent surge in racist attacks in the six counties of ‘Northern Ireland’ is a shocking indictment of the British backed sectarian state. Bernie McAdam reports on this development against a background of further strains on the Good Friday Agreement as Unionist and Loyalist leaders insist on Orangemen marching their way back through a Catholic area.
Racist incidents in Northern Ireland have increased by 31 per cent this year according to police figures. Polish, Romanian, Slovakian, Pakistani and Nigerian migrant workers have all been the target of a multitude of attacks. The latest incidents in East Belfast have seen homes and cars of Romanians and Slovakians attacked. Even the police are not ruling out loyalist paramilitary involvement.
The list of attacks makes grim reading. Anna Lo Alliance Party MLA and Chinese background has been subject to sustained racist abuse leading her to question her political future. KKK flags have been hoisted in East Belfast. In Dungannon, graffiti warns landlords not to lease property to foreigners. UVF flags fly alongside these threats. The high rise bonfires for July 12 this year witnessed not just the usual Irish and Catholic emblems for burning but banners with slogans of filthy racist abuse directed against Anna Lo and Black people.
Banners calling for ‘Local Houses for Local People’ and pickets were stationed outside a Nigerian family’s home in East Belfast. They were forced to leave. The Housing Executive called it ‘racial intimidation’ and even the police are treating it as a hate crime. But DUP First Minister Peter Robinson in his initial reaction begs to differ; ‘I’m not sure this can be described as racism in terms of what the intention of the local people was’!
Robinson has been at the centre of racist comments on more than one occasion. When Pastor McConnell recently described all Islam as ‘evil’ and ‘satanic’ and how he would not trust Muslims, Robinson leapt to his defence though he would ‘trust them to go to the shops’ for him. Such behaviour for a leading Minister would almost certainly incur resignation elsewhere in the UK.
These racist attacks have dramatically increased in mainly loyalist areas though not exclusively. The paramilitary UVF is widely regarded as orchestrating a campaign of violence against immigrants. Unionist parties like the DUP with leaders like Robinson to the fore are deliberately playing the race card that legitimises the actions of loyalist paramilitaries. Unionist politicians and state forces have had plenty of practice at this game as their collusion with loyalist murder gangs against Catholics has shown time and again.
Good Friday Agreement unravels
The rising disillusionment of Loyalists with the peace deal as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the increase in racist attacks is not a mere coincidence. This drift to the hard right can also be seen in the recent Euro and council elections. The hard line Unionist TUV lead by Jim Allister doubled its vote, and the PUP (front for UVF) won councillors in loyalist areas of Belfast and UKIP also muscled in with its anti immigration message.
Robinson’s public defence of an Islamophobic pastor was done for a reason. It is designed to cut with the loyalist discontent over flags, parades and the false perception that nationalists are getting it all their own way. The DUP will continue to beat this drum in a cynical attempt to stop the slow decline in their vote.
As the main party of Unionism the DUP, with UUP support, have already scuppered the Haas talks. These talks were designed to iron out problems on parades, flags and the legacy of ‘the Troubles’. In 2012 the Unionist parties were complicit in calling out loyalists over restricting the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall. The demonstrations which followed attacked police and nationalist areas like the Short Strand.
Last year the Parades Commission ruled that an Orange march would not be allowed to march back through the Ardoyne. This resulted in at least a week of loyalist riots. Even then the fact that nationalists had to endure a morning parade through their area is conveniently ignored! This July the PC made the same ruling which was condemned by the Orange Order and its supporters in all the Unionist and loyalist parties.
All the major Unionist parties DUP, UUP, TUV, UPRG and PUP and the Orange Order have now formed a pan Unionist and loyalist front which is boycotting the Parades Commission and any further talks on parades and flags. They called for a peaceful protest and this time round no major riots have occurred so far this summer. As 700 loyalists are still being processed through the courts after previous riots there seems to be a lull in Loyalism’s appetite for more violent confrontation.
Let no one be fooled though this could well be a lull before the storm. If their ‘graduated response’ to the PC does not pay off then the usual sectarian dogs of war could be unleashed. This degree of unity amongst Unionism has not existed for some time. It marks a shift to the right as have most shifts within this bloc and a real threat to the GFA.
It represents an accommodation to those Unionists, and there were always a significant number of them, who have never been comfortable with sharing government with Sinn Fein or with the peace process. Any concessions to Catholics would be viewed with horror.
Against a backdrop of austerity and cut backs the Unionist politicians can more easily whip up a frenzy about Catholics getting their own way and too many immigrants. This conveniently weakens any fight against austerity as Protestant workers seek out false enemies. It also creates a very dangerous political environment in which the forces of sectarian terror will once more feel free to target nationalist areas.
Sectarian and racist twins
The sectarian foundation of the northern state is key to understanding the new horrific merger of Protestant supremacism with the current racist surge in attacks on immigrants. The history of Britain’s occupation of Ireland was always related to nurturing a loyal garrison of Protestant supporters. Playing the ‘Orange card’ and divide and rule were tactics replicated across the Empire. When the partition of Ireland occurred in 1921 the northern state was artificially created from a loyal Protestant majority in six counties of the island.
The survival of ‘Northern Ireland’ could only be ensured through a system of discrimination and repression which deemed the Catholic minority as inferior and agents of a foreign country. At every level Catholics were excluded. Catholics could be forgiven for thinking that the peace deal might at the very least guarantee no Orange supremacist marches through their areas any more, accompanied as they usually were by the threat or actuality of pogroms against their community.
If Loyalism is the sectarian ideology which expresses this power over ‘the enemy within’ then there is no great difficulty in adding Pakistanis, Poles, etc to the historically loathed Irish Catholics. Sectarianism and racism are inextricably bound up, they are twins. This is why racism is posing a much greater problem in loyalist areas but that is not to deny its existence in Catholic areas as well.
Socialists should be absolutely clear about the link between the racism being stoked by Unionist politicians and the pogromist attacks by loyalist paramilitaries. Unfortunately the Socialist Party (Ireland) fudge this link in their coverage of Belfast’s anti racist march by alluding to ‘paramilitaries’ and ‘right wing politicians’ in general. But the source of the rot is the sectarian state itself, not just a reaction to an ‘economic crisis’.
The SP also ‘support the continuation of a peace process’ even though it ‘will not bring a lasting settlement’ because it institutionalises sectarianism. It certainly does the latter and that’s why they should oppose it. They believe any prosecution of the national struggle is equivalent to a sectarian conflict. This economism absolves them of supporting actual struggles that have fought the sectarian state what ever their shortcomings.
Austerity-Lite Sinn Fein
If the Unionists are using the parades issue as a potential cause of wrecking the Good Friday Agreement then also damaging to it is the inability of Sinn Fein and the DUP to agree on implementing a budget. The parties are still divided on implementing Westminster’s Welfare Reform Bill.
Sinn Fein has rightly targeted this Bill as a major attack on the poor though this may well be pressure from its base to appear more anti cuts. Sinn Fein has collaborated on swingeing cuts before and there is no guarantee that they won’t eventually vote it through the Assembly or at least an amended version of it. In fact Sinn Fein and the DUP voted through £78 million of cuts for the June monitoring round at the last Executive with another £87 million in the pipeline if Welfare Reform is not agreed. Hardly the actions of a serious anti cuts party.
No amount of juggling or tinkering with the cuts can substitute for a clear fight against all the cuts. Catholic and Protestant workers, tens of thousands of whom joined the strike on July 10, must send out the message to all ‘their’ parties that they must not implement the cuts or freeze their wages. The solidarity shown against the Con Dem government must be replicated in strike action against the Northern Executive when further cuts are made.
Far better that the GFA is wrecked on the strength of working class action than on the sectarian manoeuvres of hard right Unionism. Sinn Fein will no doubt have ‘left’ cover if Unionism brings Stormont down and in one sense it does show up Unionism as a deeply reactionary force unable to accommodate Catholics. But it is to Sinn Fein’s discredit that this settlement was ever made in the first place. Why?
First of all it guaranteed a Unionist veto over a united Ireland. The fact that Unionism is safe in this knowledge makes their present tantrums even more unacceptable. But this enormous sell out by Sinn Fein was tantamount to accepting the survival of the sectarian state albeit one with joint governance or power sharing.
Peace has not fundamentally altered the nature of the northern state nor diminished sectarianism. Each Assembly election produces a sectarian head count. The number of Orange supremacist parades increases every year. Every loyalist demonstration has a potential for pogrom.
The plight of Catholic working class areas is similar to the 60’s and 70’s. The Catholic middle class has grown and there has been a significant deterioration in Protestant working class living standards. But Community Relations Council reports suggest that ‘on every single measure on the deprivation indices Catholic families experience more deprivation than Protestants’.
Of course the richest irony is Sinn Fein ostensibly a Republican party jointly governing a British colony. As such they can only ‘spend’ what the Brits give to them. They can hold up the PC as a shining example even though it still allows some parades to enter Catholic areas. Apparently all of this will lead to a united Ireland even though Sinn Fein accepts that this can only happen with the consent of the majority of people in the colony.
For those on the Irish left like the SWP who did spot the institutionalised sectarianism of the GFA but still thought it might provide a space for class politics in the absence of armed struggle, then they too have failed to understand the impact of the agreement. The ‘space’ has been filled by a flourishing sectarianism and the GFA has become an essential tool for cross community support for austerity. Class politics has suffered no less than the fight to smash the sectarian state and force the British out.
An encouraging stand against racism was taken with the large anti racist demonstration which mobilised 4,000 in Belfast last month. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions was one of the main organisers.
Clearly the Trade Unions must be at the centre of developing an ongoing anti racist campaign. This campaign has to target the workplaces and the estates. It must spring to the defence of all immigrants under attack. Physical defence must be organised as a priority. The campaign too must draw the links between the institutionalised racism and sectarianism of the state and the actions of loyalist paramilitaries on the ground.
Sectarian marches through Catholic areas must stop. Citizen’s defence committees should be formed to mobilise against incursions and potential pogroms. Local campaigns like the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC) have called for the re routing of Orange Order marches away from their areas and should be supported.
Socialists must call for working class unity against both racist and sectarian attacks. Liberal outrage is entirely inadequate for this task. Racism and sectarianism is a weapon used by our capitalist rulers to divide us. There can be no illusion that the state can adequately fight racism or sectarianism. It is sectarian to the core. We should be mobilising against racism and sectarianism as a necessary part of the fight to stop austerity.
For too long now divisions within the northern working class have weakened the fight against the Northern Executive’s cuts agenda backed up by successive British governments. We can point to the July 10 strike as a positive though limited action in fighting austerity. But workers will also need to fight the Northern Executive’s implementation of Tory cuts alongside the wider struggle to stop Cameron’s government.
If workers can go beyond one day action and organise indefinite strikes to stop austerity then victory is possible. But socialists should be absolutely clear on the nature of the beast we are fighting. A determined struggle will bring forth state repression and the usual sectarian divide and rule tactics. We should reply by organising workers councils of action to co ordinate our strikes and self defence against all those who would divide us.
Socialists must use every opportunity to argue class politics but they must do so as part of an intervention in all the struggles against the northern state. We cannot wish away sectarianism or racism by abstract calls for workers’ unity. As long as Britain gives its support to this deeply reactionary state then socialists must fight for its abolition and an end to the British occupation which props it up. We do this in the context of a class struggle to defeat capitalism in both parts of the island!
Forward to a 32 County Workers Republic!
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