Chris Bambery provides some useful historical context to the latest bout of unrest in Belfast

Belfast flag protest Nov 2012

In the last week, rioting has broken out in Northern Ireland, following the vote by Belfast city council to limit the flying of the Union Jack to special occasions, such as royal birthdays.

The way the media reports this is that the people of Northern Ireland are crazed fanatics who hold symbols such as flags dear to their heart. Such irrational behaviour, we were told, explained three decades of “The Troubles.” This is a handy way of relieving Britain of having responsibility for using divide and rule to create a state based on sectarianism back in 1921-1922.

It also ignores the fact that the current peace process was driven by a popular desire for peace across the population. There is no significant support for going back to the days of armed struggle.

It’s important to stress the difference between that popular support for peace and the formal peace process worked out between the London, Dublin and Washington governments in accord with the Northern Ireland political parties.

The power sharing Northern Ireland executive, currently run by a Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein coalition, has been a model neoliberal administration, toasted by big business.

Each politician elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly has to formally register their “identity” as either nationalist or unionist. The idea, we are told, is that there should be equal recognition of the two different “identities” and “cultures.”

This year the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, pledging resistance to Irish Home Rule, was celebrated as part of a common Protestant “identity.” It involved a deal between Tory politicians in Belfast and London but there were few pointing this out. Instead it was treated with reverence and was a factor in stoking sectarian tensions.

The effect of all this is to permanently underscore the main division as being, supposedly, between Protestant and Catholic. Because the Assembly is based on that division every decision has a sectarian undertone. If a sports centre is built in a Catholic area; its Protestant counter part must be losing out and visa versa.

The Loyalist groups being blamed for the current violence have argued ever since the peace process was signed off, that the Protestant working class is losing out. That’s particularly acute in Belfast where the city’s population has become more and more Catholic.

The truth is that all working people in Northern Ireland have been losing out and the responsibility lies with the nationalist and unionists politicians running the executive.

While overall the percentage unemployed is just below the UK average, one in five young people can’t find work. The latest figures show for the three months from June to August, the estimated unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds in Northern Ireland is 21%, above the UK average.

Sixty two percent of pensioners live in fuel poverty. Forty thousand children are living in what is officially classified as “severe poverty.”

Private sector wages are 18 percent lower than the UK average. Public sector wages are equal because they are largely negotiated on a UK basis. Plans for regional pay awards would see severe cuts.

Northern Ireland has a proud tradition of united action against sectarianism and over economic issues. That owes little to the established political parties. Because formal politics is based on a sectarian distinction there is no organised political force championing working class unity.

A sense of unease among the Protestant middle and working class is also explainable because their grandparents had been told by the people then running the state, the Unionist Party, that it was “a Protestant state for Protestant people.”

Until 1972 Northern Ireland was run as a one party state by the Unionists. For most of that time they were loyal allies of the Tories in London. British governments left them to run things as they saw fit. That meant running a state based on discrimination against the Catholic population, repression (the police were always armed and each decade of Unionist rule saw internment without trial) and poverty.

The Unionist upper classes built a cross class alliance based on the Orange Lodge. Each 12 of July they would put a peg on their noses and join the lower orders to march in a show of togetherness. In reality, of course, working people whether Protestant or Catholic paid the price for sectarian division.

Poverty and unemployment was always higher for Catholics but overall it was higher than in Britain. Protestant workers might be encouraged to look down at their Catholic counter parts but it was always a case of two pence halfpenny looking down on two pence.

In 1972 a Tory government ended Unionist rule because it could not deal with growing Republican resistance. One party rule was gone for ever. The Unionist politicians were not treated as allies but as colonial subjects who should do what they were told.

When a Tory government under John Major made it clear that Britain had no strategic or economic interests in Northern Ireland it was clear Westminster was prepared to cast it adrift.

The Republicans who had fought for an end to partition now accepted the peace process. They had once talked of national unity involving toppling the political set up in the Irish Republic, as well as breaking the Northern Ireland state. They now pose it as uniting Northern Ireland with it when there is a majority for unity in the six county area.

This offers working people little hope, particularly those from a Protestant background.

The current riots have seen clashes with police, but also attacks on Catholic areas and on Alliance Party representatives because they voted for the limits on flying the Union Jack. But they have also seen mainstream Unionist politicians attacked.

There is anger over housing, unemployment and the impending cuts these parties shoulder responsibility for, and the Loyalist groups have capitalised on this to take it in a sectarian direction. Working class Protestants feel left behind because the Protestant middle classes have got out, literally.

What is needed in response to this is to build common resistance to austerity, based on class unity. That needs to link with those now on the streets in the Republic against austerity there. Coupled with this there needs to be a vision for a new Ireland, free from austerity and neoliberalism. The radical left has established itself as a force in the Republic. It can help strengthen those fighting for radical change on the streets of the North.

Sectarianism can only be removed from Northern Ireland by unity in common struggle combined with a politics which argues against partition, not as a crime against Irish nationalism, but as a crime against the people of Ireland, forcing them to live in two pro-business states run by pro-business politicians.

From Communiqué

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.