The eruption of sectarian rioting and attacks over several weeks in Belfast recently has demonstrated that the so-called “peace process” and the establishment of a power-sharing government have failed to end sectarian division.
Fierce rioting such as that which took place over three days, from 2 to 5 September at Carlisle Circus in North Belfast, point to new flashpoints and conflict over territory which, if not countered by the working class movement, threatens to develop into major conflicts which could potentially dwarf recent events.
12 July parades and dissident republicans
Since 12 July, when the Parades Commission restricted the Orange Order to only allowing three lodges march past Ardoyne shops by no later than 4pm, tension and anger has been building, particularly in Protestant areas. An hour after the Orange Order passed Ardoyne, approximately 1,500 Catholics led by Greater Ardoyne Residents Association (GARC – a dissident republican controlled resident group) marched along the Crumlin Rd, which was intended to confront the Orange Order march. Instead the Orange Order was only permitted to march the route in advance of the GARC protest. Some minor altercations took place as the GARC march was only separated by a thin line of PSNI from a gathering counter-protest of 300 loyalists, but intense rioting later ensued between dissidents and the PSNI which saw gunfire from both sides.
For many in the Protestant community, and not just those in the Orange Order or Loyalist groups, the Parades Commission is seen as one-sided and they have a feeling of “backs against the wall”. The Socialist Party opposed the establishment of the Parades Commission as we warned that it would invariably come down on one side’s favour resulting in grievances on the other, instead of reaching agreement via negotiations between residents and the Orange Order.
On the same day, a marching band from the Upper Shankill called the Young Conway Volunteers was captured on video by local Catholic residents. They were stalling outside St Patricks Catholic church close to Carlisle Circus, playing an anti-Catholic sectarian song. Minor scuffles broke out at the scene. Dissident republicans, in particular, used this sectarian display to mobilise Catholics from the nearby Carrick Hill estate on 25 August, when the Black Receptory marched past St Patricks Church playing music in a blatant sectarian gesture after the Parades Commission ruled that no music be played by passing bands.
Dissident republicans have added to the sectarian atmosphere and conflict by organising more confrontational and provocative marches. Without a hint of irony, Republican Network for Unity, a broad dissident formation, called a march on 2 September through Catholic North Belfast to commemorate the anti-sectarian United Irishmen leader Henry Joy McCracken. As it approached Carlise Circus, which seperates the lower Shankill from the Catholic Antrim Rd, approximately 300 loyalists attacked the march leading to three nights of intense rioting. Over 60 PSNI officers were injured, water cannon was deployed and six baton rounds were fired.
Sectarian parties stoke the flames
For several days the airwaves were filled by accusation and counter-accusation, with sectarian elements from each side blaming the other. Leading DUP members, including Ministers in the Assembly Executive, have played a central role in stoking up this conflict. Sinn Fein have also contributed to increasing tensions. In fact, this latest conflict has shown in outline the inherent contradictions in the Assembly – members of the same government on different sides of the sectarian battle lines. It is inevitable that calls from the DUP to scrap the Parades Commission will be strongly objected to by Sinn Fein and the SDLP. But the parties have no alternative. It has the potential to create political paralysis in the Assembly.
Over the last 15 years, conflict has erupted frequently over contentious parades. Sometimes conflict around certain parades has been short-lived. This particular issue is much more likely to rumble on and perhaps even become a new flashpoint on a Drumcree-like scale. Whether it does, depends in large part on the actions of sectarian forces on both sides over the coming days, weeks, months and years, but also from widespread opposition to sectarianism from the working class.
Why is this contentious route fundamentally different from most others? It is on the edge of the city centre and conflict there has the potential to explode the carefully cultivated myth of normality. The Lower Shankill is a Loyalist heartland – perhaps the Loyalist heartland. The leadership of the UVF are based on the Shankill and are reportedly under pressure from their rank and file to counter the actions of dissident republicans. The headquarters of the Orange Order are located just yards from Carlisle Circus. It is not one or two parades, or even one or two dozen, which start here every year, but over 120. There is the potential for conflict not annually or twice a year but at least weekly.
Potential for rising conflict
These events have taken on a further and immediate importance because whilst the marching season would normally now be coming to an end, this year things are different. On 29 September tens of thousands are due to march down the same route to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant.
On 6 September the Royal Black Preceptory issued an apology for the incident on 25 August and talks with the aim of calming the situation have begun. There are some indications that a deal may be done which will ensure peace on 29 September. It will not be easy to cap this particular volcano though.
These events are yet another demonstration that sectarianism has not been overcome by the “peace process”. The rioting also reflects the social conditions which exist in many working class communities – there has been no peace dividend. No politician from the main parties can solve these problems – all of the Assembly parties depend upon sectarian division to maintain their political power.
A way forward
The Socialist Party has long argued that competing rights are at stake in the conflict over parades. Despite being a right-wing, reactionary organisation the Orange Order has the right to parade. The residents of local areas have the right to object to parades through their areas with all the accompanying coat-trailing and intimidation. But, most importantly, the working class as a whole has the right to avoid being dragged into serious sectarian conflict over the issue of contentious parades.
A stark assertion from the Orange Order that it can simply march where it chooses is not part of the solution. Nor is a refusal to talk to residents. However, it is not as simple as saying that the solution is no marches, especially when a contentious march takes place along a main arterial route. Any agreement must involve stewarding organised by the marchers and local residents themselves, and accordingly no police presence in the area.
Agreement must be reached around the frequency and conduct of parades, including who takes part in and accompanies parades. Local residents must allow the possibility of parades when seeking negotiations – there must be something to negotiate. Any solution must take into account the right of all to live in peace from sectarian harassment all year round.
Anti-sectarian, socialist alternative needed
A growing layer of workers and young people are completely disillusioned with the main parties. A new party of the working class, which actively combats sectarianism, is urgently needed. Such a new party must develop out of the struggles of the working class and young people and must be able to sink roots in both communities, if it is to be viable. The trade union movement has an essential part in bringing such a party into being and must now begin to take steps in this direction.
A new party will only develop a stable mass base if it adopts the socialist policies which are capable of delivering real change for the people in every working class community in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, only a socialist transformation of society is capable of delivering real change and sweeping away the poison of sectarianism forever.