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Flags, Churches, Politicians, Sectarianism and Ordinary People December 11, 2012

Posted by Garibaldy in Sectarianism, The North.
93 comments

The events in the north in the last week serve as yet another reminder of how great the problem of sectarianism remains. They highlight the failure by the Executive parties to move beyond hollow rhetoric about a shared future, and the fact that the dynamic on which these parties thrive is inherently sectarian. While working together hand in glove, they also need to be seen to be confronting each other, to be standing up for our ones against themmuns. In the internal competition within the two sectarian blocs, that is the means to thrive. The major failure of the GFA is that it was only ever designed to manage and not remove that conflict.

So we get the sectarian shadow boxing over what the parties themselves see as side-issues that are guaranteed to raise emotions and solidify people into communal camps but won’t get in the way of the actual management of the place. Or at least that’s the theory. The Irish Language Act was a good example. Another example is October’s spat about reconciliation. Following Declan Kearney’s comments on reconciliation and his criticisms of unionist attitudes towards it, Peter Robinson responded like this

If Mr Kearney has the temerity to describe his speech as reconciliation then I suspect he would regard a knee capping as physiotherapy

Cue a round of sniping at one another in the press, leaving all sides emotionally satisfied while simultaneously able to point to comments desiring a shared future etc. This is what passes for the politics of reconciliation at a central level. Window dressing, like yesterday’s motion in the Assembly condemning violence and threats, is not enough.

Things are worse at a local level. Rows break out over the allocation of funds for Twelfth bonfires. The DUP refuses to share power in many local councils despite the arrangement at Stormont and in other local councils. GAA grounds being used for events or competitions associated with paramilitaries is a perennial favourite (in its more exotic version, this can extend as far as complaints to supermarkets for allowing schoolchildren to pack shopping for charity in GAA tops). In Newry, with a massive nationalist majority, last week saw the culmination of a row over the proposed renaming of a children’s playground after Raymond McCreesh, one of the hunger strikers. When arrested, McCreesh was in possession of one of the weapons used in the Kingsmill massacre. A new memorial to the massacre had sectarian graffiti scratched into it. The day after, the park was renamed after McCreesh with the support of independent nationalist and SDLP councillors as well as those of PSF. This was the same week that nationalist councillors in Belfast secured Alliance support for their plan to cut the number of days the union flag flies from City Hall on the grounds that flying it alienated those citizens who don’t feel British. The question of how Newry’s unionists feel about the council now seems of less importance to the two big nationalist parties.

The violent response to the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall was in many senses predictable. A clue was offered by the riots that followed the parades commission’s determination following the sectarian playing of the famine song by the YCV band from the Shankill outside St Patrick’s church in north Belfast (and which saw weasel words from several unionist politicians refusing to fully condemn the initial incident and the rioting). The two major unionist parties, especially the DUP, made a serious issue of this, particularly in east Belfast, in the run-up to the vote. There can be little doubt that the DUP’s aim was to use the issue to damage the Alliance Party in the eyes of unionist voters who had switched to Alliance’s Naomi Long at the last Westminster election in the context of the sexual and financial allegations then swirling around the Robinsons. If that desire to take back the East Belfast Westminster seat was the main context, there was also the standard sham fight element. The sham fight dynamic has been accentuated by the pressure on both the UUP and the SDLP, who have both been swinging between becoming more hardline and becoming more moderate as they try to reclaim some lost ground. Mike Nesbitt in particular has floundered badly in all this.

Less predictable than some disorder in Belfast was the way the protests have spread, as far away as Derry city. The virulence of the reaction has also taken many by surprise. Certainly the DUP politician in Newtownabbey stoned by protestors he was trying to address because they didn’t recognise him got a shock. So too did the Belfast councillor who supported the protest the night of the vote only to find his car windscreen smashed by the protestors as they sought to force entrance to the council chamber. There were also nastier surprises. The fascistic attacks on the offices and homes of Alliance Party representatives in several areas (and the death threats issued to them and others such as Gerry Kelly) were, I suspect, totally unexpected by those who wanted to use this issue for political gain. It was interesting to see Billy Hutchinson blame those who put the focus on Alliance for inciting violence. Last night, an attempt was made to murder a policeman who was protecting Naomi Long’s constituency office by throwing a petrol bomb in a car while he was still inside it. How then to explain the nature of the reaction?

It’s tempting to suggest that the violence and protests orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries are as much about ensuring that community development funds continue to flow as it is about anger over the lowering of the Union Jack most of the year in Belfast. The attacks on the Alliance Party may also be influenced by resentment at David Ford’s role as Justice Minister and the widespread feeling among loyalists that the historical crimes team spends more time looking at them than anyone else; the dispute offers an opportunity to settle a few scores. Mike Nesbitt reckons that the reason people have been out in such force is that they feel that they are losing. The idea that they are being stripped of their identity has been voiced in comments in the press and online, and it is common to see the issue linked to restrictions on loyal order marches as part of that argument.

This sense of losing at times seems somewhat remarkable. At bottom, the peace process secured overwhelming support for the principle of consent, and saw the Provisional IRA dissolved. In this flag dispute, Belfast’s nationalist councillors voted to have the union flag flying over City Hall for nearly 20 days a year. This could just as easily have been spun as a victory as a defeat. I have no idea whether this was actually said or not, but I’ve seen loyalist claims that one of the nationalist councillors presented this as a step to a United Ireland. It could equally be presented as a recognition of the Union Jack. But – and this has been something true throughout the process – unionists have failed to see the glass as half-empty, although the DUP does this at its annual conferences when patting itself on the back for taming the opposition. Why is that? The sectarianism of our politics. When you view politics as a competition between us and them, then anything which the opposition welcomes is by definition bad for you. It looked at the time of the GFA that we might be able to break out of that mentality, particularly with the development of the loyalist parties. However, that proved a false dawn.

Some of those charged with rioting were not born when the GFA was signed. This is one of the things that makes the sham fighting so dangerous. It continues the perverted mindset so important to sustaining the Troubles, and perpetuates it among new generations. Coupled with the communalism built into the structures of the GFA, social problems, structural unemployment and hopelessness, you have a recipe for continued outbreaks of low-level sectarian rioting and possibly worse. Reconciliation – the unity of those of all religions and none – is the last thing that will result. And the nationalist and unionist parties depend on this dynamic, whatever about the well-intentioned people within them.

If you want to be truly depressed, take a look at the comments in the coverage of these issues on Sluggerotoole. Not only do you have people ranting about the impossibility of tolerating treason (i.e. advocating peaceful constitutional change and not having the flag flying every day), you have a tendency to blame instances of sectarian attacks on protestants as the secret work of loyalists and/or the Brits. Mick Fealty has for years been tracking low-level sectarian attacks on protestant churches and orange halls, especially in rural areas. He has consistently raised the challenge this poses for people who claim to be republican (although he is more inclined to think people are more genuine about the reconciliation stuff than I am). Some of the comments on his thread on sectarian graffiti daubed on a protestant church last week in Glenavy would make you wonder what goes on in some people’s heads.

Part of the problem of course is the ability of a remarkable number of people to see only the sectarian actions of themmuns. Instances suggesting that it is a problem across the divide are often ignored or explained away. This is inevitable while politics in Northern Ireland is built on the idea that there are two communities. To quote a statement on these events by WP General Secretary John Lowry

The pitiful sight of thousands of people protesting outside Belfast City Hall about flags is matched only by a chamber full of councillors debating it inside.

The real questions that must be asked about this tribal debacle are the ones that Sinn Fein and DUP voters in particular must ask of themselves.

While jobs are being lost, prices rising, homes being repossessed, child poverty increasing and thousands of people across the city facing a daily ‘eat or heat’ dilemma, Councillors in Belfast are using flags and emblems as a smokescreen for their failure to even address these issues.

Sinn Fein and DUP supporters must now ask themselves “Do I really want to vote for a party that is happy to ignore social and economic realities to secure their own tribal positions”?

And there’s the rub. The sectarian problems of Northern Ireland are not due to the politicians nor a small minority. They are due to the persistence of a sectarian mindset among the majority of people. Until people ask themselves the hard questions, until they are prepared to look for an alternative to both unionism and nationalism, things will not change. There’s no point deploring the excesses of a political and social system of virtual religious apartheid if you embrace the system yourself. This is why the sectarian sham fighting of the parties works. The problems of Northern Ireland’s society haven’t gone away you know. The only people that benefit are the middle classes who make a nice living, with their kids going to grammar schools and university and then getting professional jobs while working class children are sacrificed from the age of 11 onwards. Neither unionism nor nationalism can address the problems of the working class. But, paradoxically, while the trade union movement is relative strong, class consciousness is very low. The sectarian mindset dominates virtually unchallenged across most of the north. This is the reality which socialists and progressives must combat through raising genuinely secular, anti-sectarian and progressive politics.

Proving a Point July 12, 2012

Posted by Garibaldy in Sectarianism, Workers' Party.
20 comments

This is a photograph of a bonfire in east Belfast for last night. At least they are putting some class in their ash.

Childhood Sectarianism March 12, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in Sectarianism.
2 comments

Depressing tale from Moochin Photoman at Sluggerotoole of the sectarianism he has witnessed among children. This is the reality of life in Northern Ireland still. Roll on the May elections, where a lot of rhetoric will try and hide the fundamental sectarianism of politics and society.

Sectarian Murder, Community Relations, and Policing May 29, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Northern Ireland, Sectarianism.
3 comments

Yesterday nine men were charged in connection with the brutal gang attack that resulted in the murder of local community worker Kevin McDaid and the attempted murder of another man. In the aftermath of the conclusion of the Scottish Premier League season that saw Rangers take the title from Celtic on the last day, a loyalist gang mounted an attack on a predominantly Catholic area of Coleraine, and Mr. McDaid, his wife and at least one other man were brutally beaten. It seems that tensions in the area had already been raised by a planned loyalist band parade and the flying of tricolours in the area. There are a number of important strands to this story that go beyond the immediate tragedy of the death and injuries. The first is that this is a brutal reminder that despite the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing, sectarianism remains the defining reality of life in Northern Ireland. It is especially virulent in many small towns where violent clashes and intimidation remain rife.

Beyond these obvious signs, we should not forget that the overwhelming majority continue to live lives completely separated from one another, and of course we now will have a private Catholic and a private Protestant transfer test for those wishing to go to grammar schools, which add class to religious segregation.

The murder of Mr. McDaid raises other issues. The first is that of paramilitary involvement. The police have specifically said that the attack was not an organised action carried out by the UDA. However, of the nine people charged, several are members of the local loyalist band whose parade has been a source of contention, and one is an ex-member of the UDP. This suggests very strongly that the people involved in the attack were linked to the UDA. This does not necessarily mean that the attack was a sanctioned UDA operation. There are parallels with other murders over the last number of years believed to have been carried out by members of paramilitary groups but where the organisation itself has been absolved of responsibility. This is probably the case, but the unpleasant reality is that the overall interests of the political process mean that the boat would probably not be rocked by membership charges in such cases even if it weren’t. It is a reminder as to why the structures of paramilitary organisations must be dismantled, something which has largely happened with the Provisionals but hardly at all with loyalist paramilitaries.

The response of unionist politicians has once again come under justified scrutiny. Newton Emerson in the Irish News hits the nail on the head

Responding to the murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine, DUP councillor Adrian McQuillan said: “What reason can you see for there being tricolours up yesterday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon? None other than for to get a reaction from the loyalist community and they certainly got a reaction this time, which is very sad.”
This statement stinks of equivocation. To equate flying a line of scruffy bunting with taking a man’s life is absolutely jaw-dropping. The eventual absent-minded description of the murder as “very sad” only adds to the insult.
Depersonalising acts of visceral violence is a standard evasive manoeuvre in Northern Ireland. First the act is characterised as “a reaction”, transforming the perpetrators into mere parts of a mechanism.
Then the consequences are imbued with some abstract property, like sadness, as if concrete human decisions played no part.

He also quotes Ulster Unionist MLA David McClarty on the allegation of UDA involvement in the murder. “We have to moderate our language and not go throwing blame where no proof has been given as to who was responsible for this incident.” This type of equivocal language is familiar across the decades of the Troubles, where unionist politicians have often been ambiguous in their attitudes to loyalist paramilitaries to say the least. The inherently sectarian nature of NI politics is evident here – we must extend understanding to “our side” who ultimately have their hearts in the right place unlike the other side. While such attitudes persist, there will always be a climate that enables day-to-day sectarianism and confrontation to flourish.

The McDaids have raised a number of concerns about police actions on the day in question. Firstly it was claimed that the police had stood by during the attack, something denied by the police themselves, who claimed that the initial officers on the scene had to withdraw due to weight of hostile numbers. Then today the family have released a statement questioning the police’s involvement in negotiations with loyalists over tensions in the area in the period before the attack. This from the family’s statement

The family wish to make it clear that they are concerned that the PSNI were involved in negotiations with a number of persons perceived to be from the Loyalist community on Sunday the 24th of May 2009.
“The family are concerned regarding the nature of these negotiations and the attendant claim that threats were made by individuals from this background to police that violence would ensue unless certain demands made by them were met.
“It is a fundamental tenet of a civilised society that individuals such as these should not dictate the terms of law and order.
“We are further concerned that given the prior knowledge of the threat, neither we and nor our neighbours were not properly protected by police.
“We want the community to support the police, but equally police must also support the community.

Hugh Orde has responded to the family by stating that there had been negotiations in the area between loyalists and the residents of the area attacked, in which Mr. McDaid had been involved, to try and reduce tensions. He also said that the police dictated their activities and no-one else. Except that’s not really true, is it? On first glance, the idea of the police negotiating with loyalists seems very problematic, especially in light of what followed. However, the reality is that in interface areas the police negotiate with all sides on a regular basis. And the reality also is that these negotiations can be and have been extremely useful in preventing and containing violence in many areas, including during controversial marches. Politicians and people from all sides praise the police when such tactics work. I doubt that this was the first time that the police in this area had been involved in discussions with the local residents, and I also suspect that such negotiations have had positive effects. The tragic death of Mr. McDaid should not blind us to this fact, nor should there be a knee-jerk response that assumes the police were automatically in the wrong to have become involved in negotiations. Clearly the police response to the mounting tensions and the violence must be examined for mistakes or negligence, but we need to keep things in perspective.

Overall then this murder should not be viewed as an isolated incident. It is the direct result of the type of society and politics we have Northern Ireland. Sectarian attitudes, and ambiguous attitudes to incidents of sectarian violence, permeate our society. They are a cancer, as is the presence of paramilitary groups. Until we root out these diseases, the symptoms will continue to break out. In the current circumstances, with peace and power-sharing, added to the economic crisis, we – north and south, as well as Westminster – have taken our eye off this vital issue. The binning of the Shared Future strategy almost as soon as the DUP and PSF assumed power was one such sign. There are many others. Sectarianism still has the capacity to kill workers. It still poisons and destroys their lives. Progressives must step up their campaign against it.

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