East Belfast riots: Only united working class action can prevent further attacks
Socialist Party, CWI, Ireland
The rioting in the Catholic enclave in the predominantly Protestant east Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 20 and 21 June - the worst in recent years - did not appear from a blue sky. Throughout the Troubles, the interface between the Catholic Short Strand and Protestant Lower Newtownards Road has been the scene of sporadic sectarian violence emanating from both communities.
In recent months, there have been an increasing number of attacks on homes in both communities and this has ratcheted up sectarian tensions. The loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) used an incident to organise hundreds of young people from across east Belfast to join them in an orchestrated attack on the Short Strand.
There is little doubt that the UVF carried out the attack for its own cynical reasons. It has been angered by the continued investigation by the Historical Enquiry Team, established by the police service of Northern Ireland into the UVF's role in sectarian atrocities during the Troubles.
Like the rioting in another area, Rathcoole, last year, this was an attempt by the UVF to flex its muscles and send a warning to the state to back off. Internal tensions in the UVF may also have been factors leading up to the riots.
On 22 June, UVF members were among those stewarding the area to prevent clashes between young people following a series of talks. Obviously, they felt their point had been made.
When the rioting broke out dissident republican paramilitaries consciously intervened, hoping to be seen as 'defenders of the community'. The dissidents are seeking to develop a base of support in the communities by their actions and have no interest whatsoever in the welfare of working class people.
These events are yet another demonstration that, despite the propaganda from the establishment, sectarianism has not been overcome by the so-called 'peace process'. In fact, as the Socialist Party has previously explained in depth, the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement have cemented and deepened sectarian division.
The rioting also reflects the dire social conditions, including high unemployment, which exist in these communities. Youth who see no hope of a decent future and who feel alienated from society can be drawn towards sectarian forces such as the UVF and dissident republicans.
For now, the conflict has subsided but nothing is resolved. The conditions which sparked the riots remain to ignite at another point, not just in east Belfast but at all sectarian interfaces.
The majority of people in the Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road, and the majority of people in other interface areas, are totally opposed to sectarian attacks. Despite this, conflict does break out. Conscious sectarian elements deliberately foment low level attacks on a regular basis and seek opportunities to provoke more serious outbreaks of violence.
While working class people on either side of the peacelines can and do work hard in their own areas to prevent attacks, it is of vital importance that genuine activists link up and work together across the peacelines if a more permanent solution to the problem of sectarian attacks is to be found.
Trade union activists based in interface areas can and should play a key role in taking such initiatives. At key points throughout the last 40 years trade union activists have held the line in combating sectarianism.
Taking such initiatives is not easy, especially at times of sharp increases in tension and violence. If even a handful of activists on both sides of an interface were to take a stand however, building joint bodies, they could mobilise large numbers of local people behind them, and transform the situation.
Anti-sectarian bodies should consciously take up social and economic issues from the outset. Uniting communities in their common interests, to campaign on issues like youth unemployment and oppose attacks on services, would not only strengthen campaigns on these issues, but would help to break down sectarian divisions. Ultimately, tackling the conditions which breed sectarian conflict is the only way to defeat the reactionary forces that base themselves on division.
As the recent events in east Belfast demonstrate, if a political alternative is not built, then reactionary, sectarian groups can develop further and gain support.
All the Assembly parties depend upon sectarian division to maintain their political power. A new party of the working class, which actively combats sectarianism, is urgently needed.
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