Events of the weekend of 9 August to the 11th shone a spotlight on the sectarian landscape of Northern Ireland in 2013. There was fierce rioting in the city centre of Belfast on the 9th when up to 2000 loyalists mobilised to block an “anti-internment” march organised by a number of dissident republican groups.
Over 70 members of the PSNI and many civilians were injured in the trouble. Water cannon were deployed by the police and dozens of baton rounds were fired. The worst trouble occurred when loyalists confronted the PSNI on Royal Avenue but there were also hand to hand clashes between Catholic youth and loyalists in adjacent streets.
The UVF reportedly mobilised for the counter-demonstration though it has since denied this. Whether it did or not the turnout is a clear warning sign of the sense of alienation which is widespread in Protestant working class areas. The feeling that “our backs are against the wall” is leading many young Protestants into the orbit of loyalist paramilitary groups. One indicator of this is that nearly 600 protestors have been arrested since last December, almost all from the most deprived Protestant working class areas. Significantly the loyalist protest was a “success” as the dissident march was re-routed away from its planned route. The most hard line loyalist groupings will draw obvious conclusions.
There is also intense alienation amongst a broad layer of Catholic youth. The night before the city centre clashes there was trouble at a number of dissident republican organised bonfires in Belfast. The fact that the dissidents can now organise bonfires in a number of areas, and reportedly drew a crowd of 5000 to their march, is an indication of the increasing sense that the peace process has not delivered felt by many young working-class Catholics.
A Sinn Fein organised march through Castlederg on 11 August was also met by a counter-demonstration. The march was organised to commemorate those who died in the ranks of the IRA in County Tyrone during the course of the Troubles. Sinn Fein have organised one such march for Tyrone in recent years, in competition with the many parades in the county organised by various dissident groupings.
Leading members of Sinn Fein expressed astonishment that Protestants would be offended by the march and accused the DUP of deliberately stoking up tension. Twenty-nine Protestants, some of whom were members of the RUC and some of whom were not, were killed in the Castlederg area by the IRA during the Troubles, and in fact the march was inevitably provocative.
Gerry Kelly was the key Sinn Fein spokesman as controversy erupted over Castlederg. In interviews he argued that there are two “narratives” of our history, the unionist and the nationalist/republican. The way forward is for each side to accept that this is the case and to show “respect” to the other side. He, and those like him in both communities, can conceive of no other approach to the past, or to the future. The lessons from our past, for Kelly and his unionist counterparts, is that sectarian division is permanent and timeless.
The Sinn Fein narrative is that the IRA campaign was justified, inevitable and successful. When the DUP challenge Sinn Fein it simply parades its reactionary, sectarian and right wing character. In one media debate it was put to DUP minister Arlene Foster that she was not in any position to condemn Sinn Fein’s commemoration of dead bombers because DUP members do the same for a UVF member in Coleraine. She was reduced to a hollow claim of ignorance which no-one believes.
Working class alternative
There is in fact a third narrative-the narrative of the workers movement. There is an alternative history to that being peddled by sectarian forces to a new generation. This is a history of the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers and youth, struggling for a better life and acting to check sectarianism at crucial times through strikes and demonstrations against threats and killings.
The workers movement can provide an alternative to sectarianism and conflict. This does not mean preventing anyone remembering their dead but lies in a real examination of the past and a rejection of both one-sided sectarian views of history.
The way to a better future lies in remembering the best of the past-the times when workers and youth united in struggle. Remembering the past is not an abstract question but is actually about today’s politics. A blinkered view of the past provides an alibi for the politicians and the political forces who lead us into forty years of conflict and allows them to posture as peacemakers even as they stoke conflict today.
The almost continuous turmoil and violence on the streets of the last year is a stark warning for the future. Division and conflict on the ground puts the stability of the Executive into question. Talks between the main parties commence on 11 September. These talks, chaired by US diplomat Richard Haas, are supposed to address issues around flags, emblems, parades and the past.
Whilst desperate attempts are being made to play up the significance of the talks they will occur against the background of ongoing tension. An uneasy standoff continues on Twadell Avenue in North Belfast as the Orange Order protests every night against the decision to stop its July march past Ardoyne shops. Small scale flag protests continue at City Hall every Saturday. The fallout after the attack on Mayor Martin O’Mueillor is causing dissension on Belfast City Council. There is speculation around the ownership of the large arms find in South Belfast. And there are sporadic dissident attacks on the PSNI, attacks on Orange halls and threats against Catholic bars in Larne.
If any deal or agreement is reached in the Haas talks it will be partial and fragile. Fundamentally any agreement will be no more than an uneasy “understanding” which means no more than agreeing to disagree.
Role of the trade union
The independent voice of the working-class is today expressed primarily through the trade unions. The trade union movement must urgently seek to mobilise its quarter of a million members in a struggle against the cuts, an issue which unites Protestant and Catholic workers. It needs to go beyond economic and social issues however, and actively combat sectarian threats and attacks though united protests and strike action. Two of the North’s key unions, NIPSA and Unite, recently passed conference motions preparing the way for union organised action, including industrial action when necessary, against sectarian threats and attacks. It is vital that activists work within all unions, and in every genuine non-sectarian community group, to ensure that the ground is well prepared for united working class action when the time is right.
In the past the working class had an independent labour tradition. Ultimately a new party of the working-class, which actively combats sectarianism, is needed and trade unionists have an essential part in bringing such a party into being. The sense that we are slipping back to the past should inject new urgency into efforts to create such a new party.