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Northern Ireland: Riots show failure of peace process
THE SCENES in Belfast and other Northern Ireland towns last weekend give a stark warning that the 'peace process' could at some point unravel and be quickly replaced by widespread sectarian conflict.
Gary Mulcahy, Socialist Party, Belfast
Intense rioting erupted in Protestant working-class areas of Belfast and in surrounding towns as well as Antrim, Derry and Ballymena. The riots were sparked when the Parades Commission (a government body appointed to decide on the routes of contentious parades) refused to let an Orange Order parade pass through part of the mainly Catholic Springfield Road area of Belfast.
Burning barricades were erected and violent clashes broke out with the state. Over 1,000 soldiers and 1,000 police were deployed to quell rioting led by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defence Association) loyalist paramilitaries. Loyalists fired over 50 live rounds and were answered with live rounds from the army and up to 500 plastic bullets were fired by soldiers and police.
Police warned people not to travel by car after dozens of vehicles were hijacked to create barricades or for use as battering rams on police stations. Sectarian clashes also took place at 'interface areas' throughout the North.
The night before the parade, Protestant youth almost kicked to death a Catholic close to the Short Strand, an interface area in East Belfast. Sectarian attacks also broke out in Derry.
Such widespread rioting has not been seen in Northern Ireland since the Orange Order were refused leave to march through Garvaghy Rd in Drumcree in the late 1990s. Since then, demographic changes have created new flashpoints of sectarian conflict across the North. As Catholic communities continue to expand and enter mixed or Protestant areas, new fronts are created.
The 'Troubles' have not disappeared but changed from one form into another. A mixture of military stalemate, war-weariness and opposition from workers, led to the calling of the ceasefires in 1994.
Since then, the so-called 'peace process' has led to an unprecedented level of sectarian polarisation. The Troubles have developed into a drawn-out war of attrition over territory and control over areas. It also led to violent confrontation over the routes of parades.
The parades issue presents a conflict of rights. Sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and Ancient Order of Hibernians have a right to march, but residents also have a right to oppose being trampled upon. Face-to-face negotiations must take place between elected resident representatives and parade organisers to come to agreement on contentious parades.
Stewarding of parades and residents should be carried out by representatives of both residents and marchers with no interference from the state. The overriding right though is the right of the working class not to be dragged into a sectarian conflict over contentious parades.
For working-class communities, both Catholic and Protestant, the peace process delivered little. Attacks on jobs, services and conditions continue as well as increased sectarian polarisation. Protestant working-class communities feel increasingly alienated from the political process.
The recent IRA statement that it is to 'stand down' was immediately followed by the dismantling of British army barracks and watchtowers as well as the disbanding of the (locally recruited British army regiment) Royal Irish Regiment. Sinn Fein's rise to become the largest nationalist party in the North, their increasing support in the South and a rise in Catholic confidence has heightened insecurity in Protestant working-class areas.
Also, the manufacturing sector that once supplied many Protestant areas with relatively secure jobs is now almost extinct. These conditions plus a growing hatred for careerist unionist politicians and the lack of a mass working-class socialist alternative has led to the current mood in Protestant areas.
However, these latest developments repel workers across the sectarian divide. Most working class people still oppose any return to the dark days of the Troubles. But without a mass socialist party and a lead from the trade union movement, sectarian conflict will threaten to draw Northern Ireland into a carnival of reaction far worse than ever.
On 18 January 2001, 100,000 workers took to the streets after postal workers went on all-out strike after the UDA killed Danny McColgin, a Catholic postal worker.
This excellent display of workers' unity forced the UDA to withdraw its death-threats against Catholic workers and pushed back the sectarians on both sides. The trade union movement should make a similar approach again in response to recent sectarian violence.
The Socialist Party in Northern Ireland is building support within the trade unions and in Catholic and Protestant working class communities for working-class unity and socialist ideas. By building campaigns such as the We Won't Pay Campaign against the introduction of water charges, working-class communities can be united across the sectarian divide. Part of this process will be to expose the sectarian political parties and paramilitaries who are opposed to unity of the working class.
On a capitalist basis there can be no solution. Only on the basis of a struggle for socialism can sectarian division be broken. A new party of the working class based on the trade unions and genuine community groups and with a socialist programme must be built now.