Petrol bombs thrown across the Peace wall. Petrol bombs thrown across the Peace wall. Source: Screenshot / Twitter - @EmmaVardyTV / Link to tweet below

The combination of sectarianism, poverty and repression is an explosive mix argues Chris Bambery

This week has seen rioting in Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland including Belfast, Derry, Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey.

This had largely gone unreported in Britain and had not been seen by Boris Johnson as a matter of concern.

Things changed on Wednesday when Loyalist youth attacked the Lanark Way interface in west Belfast, where the unionist Shankill Road meets the nationalist Springfield Road area, divided by “peace gates”. Seven police officers were injured, a journalist for the Belfast Telegraph was assaulted and a bus hijacked and set alight.

Clearly, the Loyalists were trying to provoke a violent response by their nationalist counterparts. Elected members of Sinn Fein were present urging nationalist youth to go home. There was no sign of their counterparts in the Democratic Unionist Party doing the same.

This didn’t stop British media reports claiming the violence was coming from both sides.

On Thursday morning the Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled for an emergency debate following the sixth consecutive night of violence in Northern Ireland. The Executive said:

“While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and for the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm’s way to protect others.”

Fine words but the Democratic Unionist Party and its leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, has played a part in raising sectarian tension in Loyalist communities, whipping up a storm over leading Sinn Fein figures, including the Deputy First Minister Michele O’Neil, attending the funeral of Bobby Storey, a prominent Republican, last year. This was seen to be in breach of the Covid lockdown. The police were criticised for not issuing fines and stopping the event from going ahead. The Public Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute members of Sinn Féin caused anger in the DUP.

Arlene Foster is calling for the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s chief constable Simon Byrne to resign over the row. DUP figures made statements alleging the PSNI are biased towards Sinn Féin and that the party is receiving “special treatment”.

In a tweet, Foster has condemned the riots but added that “the real lawbreakers” were Sinn Fein, in reference is to the Storey funeral, as if the mourners there can be equated with Loyalist rioters attacking a bus driver or trying to break through the interface between Protestant and Catholic communities in West Belfast.

The Good Friday Agreement unravelling

In truth, there are diffuse reasons for the rioting this week. In Newtonabbey it is widely believed the Ulster Defence Association was behind the riots after police broke up a drug-dealing ring they ran. During the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s the UDA formed sectarian murder squads seeking to kill Catholics, any Catholic often, whatever their political views. They also operated in collusion with British security forces to target leading Republicans.

It is alleged that leading DUP figures have met with Loyalist organisations, including the UDA in recent weeks. The UDA is among a number of illegal groups represented politically by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC). On 3 March, the LCC announced that loyalist paramilitaries were temporarily withdrawing their support for the Good Friday peace deal (the fact that Loyalist paramilitary organisations, with significant memberships, still exist 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement (signed on 10 April) is a matter of concern).

The issue here is the creation of a de facto border between Northern Ireland and Britain as part of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. Then Boris Johnson huffed and puffed claiming that over his dead body would there be checks and controls between Britain and Northern Ireland.

We should remember prior to the December 2019 UK general election, the Tory government in London was reliant on the support of the DUP at Westminster.

Johnson was being rather economical with the truth. The reality was that he chose to put a border with the European Union in the middle of the Irish Sea rather than along the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which remains a member of the European Union. He did that because if he had taken the latter course he knew he was breaching the Good Friday Agreement and risking the anger of the United States, one of its guarantors. New President Joe Biden makes a big thing of his Irish roots.

In the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU, although the DUP campaigned to Leave.

Sectarianism and poverty

But the single biggest factor behind the riots in Protestant areas of Northern Ireland is a deep sense of insecurity.

When Northern Ireland was carved out by the British in 1921 it was done on the basis of a sectarian headcount to create a “Protestant state for a Protestant people.” The resulting Catholic minority were second-class citizens in the new state, discriminated over jobs and housing and subject to the whims of an armed Protestant police force.

Working-class Protestants were encouraged to believe they were part of a privileged Unionist community, united with the industrialists, financiers and landowners. As W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out about poor whites in the Southern states of the USA, discrimination may have given them a psychological sense of superiority, but in reality, they were only marginally better off.

Northern Ireland’s economy, based on shipbuilding and engineering, was already in decline by 1921. The new state suffered lower wages and higher levels of unemployment and poverty than Britain, affecting Catholics most but also Protestant workers.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, the sense of unease has grown. Back in the day, Unionist politicians were thick as thieves with the Chief Constable. They were not calling for their resignation and could never imagine that they’d complain the police favoured Republicans!

Since Brexit, there has widespread speculation it would fuel support for Irish unity. Many business people might object to that in their mind, but in their pocket, they are having to consider the unthinkable.

Working-class, and many middle class, Protestants feel left behind, unrepresented by their elected politicians and unsure of their identity. Still proud to be British perhaps, but it’s clear Britain would dump them with no qualms if it suits Westminster’s interests.

Take one example. Once Queen’s University in Belfast was a Protestant University for Protestant people. Today figures showing that roughly 50 per cent more Catholics than Protestants are entering higher education each year indicate that more should be done to make universities welcoming for Protestants.

What that means for DUP Education Spokesperson, Peter Weir, is taking down “large numbers of bi-lingual signs” at Belfast’s Queens University, signs which are in English and Irish (it’s the latter he objects to).

There are today more Catholic teenagers than Protestant ones, which means that the Protestant majority foreseen back in 1921 as being permanent is not so. Under the Good Friday Agreement, there is a provision for an all-Ireland referendum on unity. If the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament agreed to hold one, a big if, then the result is anyone’s guess.

Add into the mix the fact that over 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are living in absolute poverty, according to the latest figures from the Department for Communities. The Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin 2018/19 showed that 16% of individuals were now living in absolute poverty, compared to 14% in 2017/18, which was deemed a “statistically significant increase”.

Of those living in absolute poverty, 92,000 (21%) were children. This is an increase of 16% on the previous year and was also deemed statistically significant.

There are more than 40,000 people on the waiting list for social housing. That list increased by 10% within the last year.

Half of Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas are found in Belfast. Catholic areas are the worst hit but the pain is also felt in working-class Protestant communities.

The history of Northern Ireland shows that there have been many times Protestant and Catholic workers have united over their common, class interest. The solidarity for the July 2019 occupation of the Harland and Wolff shipyard against job losses and pay cuts is a recent example.

But united action over economic and social issues is not enough because of the structural divisions enshrined in the Northern Ireland state. That issue has to be addressed and not ignored.

The reason for these riots is that Northern Ireland is an artificial state constructed on the basis of sectarianism, repression and poverty. Its time has long gone, if it ever existed.

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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.