Northern Ireland: Flag issue turmoil illustrates failure of the ‘peace process’

Trade unions must offer a clear cross-community, anti-sectarian class alternative

Ciaran Mulholland , CWI Northern Ireland

Turmoil over the issue of the flying of the union flag has now continued across Northern Ireland for six weeks.

The protests, involving the blocking of roads, petrol bombs and frequent rioting, began on 3 December when Belfast City Council voted to fly the flag over City Hall on 17 “designated days” rather than 365 days a year.

On some nights as many as 80 roads have been blocked. The police have used water cannon and fired potentially lethal plastic bullets and over 100 protesters have been arrested.

The worst violence has occurred in East Belfast where the local Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) appears to be acting independently of the central UVF leadership.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – the largest unionist party) leader, and First Minister, Peter Robinson has stated that the protesters now only represent a “thin layer of unionism”.

Robinson’s party played an important role in kicking off the trouble when it and the second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), together circulated 40,000 leaflets on the flag issue in the run-up to the City council vote.

This was despite the DUP and UUP on Lisburn City council quietly agreeing to the same arrangement for flying the union flag.

Now the leaders of the main unionist parties are trying to regain control of the situation. They are desperate to simultaneously play the card of sectarian division in order to maintain their vote, but also wish to play the role of responsible bourgeois politicians seeking to provide stability and social peace.

While the total numbers involved are relatively small there is no doubt that the issue has acted as a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with the peace process which has built up over time in the Protestant community.

There is a sense that “everything is going in one direction”, that is, Protestants are losing out to Catholics.

Progressive Unionist Party (the PUP is linked to the UVF) leader Billy Hutchinson has argued “Sinn Féin [the largest nationalist party] are acting outside the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”.

This is the reason that the PUP have given for reversing their previous conciliatory approach on the flags issue.

Extreme right winger Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has condemned Sinn Féin’s “aggressive cultural war”.

Allister’s party is small but this assertion rings true for many more Protestants than those who are prepared to directly support him.

At the same time many Catholics continue to believe that they are subject to sectarian discrimination.

They hold that they are dealt with more harshly by the police. They know that they are more likely to be poor and unemployed than Protestants.

The real problem is that the peace process, established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, has failed to deliver for working class or young people whatever their background.

Under the structures established by the Good Friday Agreement it is assumed that everyone belongs to one or other of two mutually exclusive communities.

While all sections of the Protestant community have been affected by the flag issue it finds its sharpest expression in the most deprived working class areas.

The rioting and the road blocks are in part a distorted form of class anger directed at the unionist political establishment represented in the Assembly and on the Executive.

Under capitalism, all that is possible is a sharing out of political power and a sharing out of poverty and unemployment.

Unionist parties

While the protests have been mainly organised through social media, a leadership has emerged over the past weeks and is attempting to assert itself.

On 3 January the “Ulster Peoples Forum” (UPF) was launched to represent this new layer. Willie Frazer was elected as its spokesman.

The UPF has adopted two key demands: “A return to direct rule because of the failing of our political representatives” and “the Union Flag to be flown from every council building across Northern Ireland”.

Such strident demands are designed to put pressure on the mainstream unionist parties (the DUP and UUP) and to carve out a base for Frazer and his allies.

The UPF has counter-posed itself to the “Unionist Forum” convened by the DUP and UUP and which also involves the PUP and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)-linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG).

The Unionist Forum is a transparent attempt by the DUP and UUP to gain control of what is a confused and fluid situation.

Many unionist politicians have argued that the mobilisation of sufficient numbers of Protestant voters will reverse the flag decision.

Some have taken this argument further and raised the question of unionist unity or a single unionist party. Such unity may amount to little more than the DUP swallowing the UUP almost whole.

The UVF-linked PUP has had a very high profile throughout the protests and could gain electorally as a result. It has reported an influx of new members.

The PUP is strident on sectarian issues and is shortly to announce a programme of “cultural counter-attack” and “re-Britification”.

Simultaneously it constantly raises issues of class, pointing out that all working class people are suffering.

The Alliance party, the target of loyalist wrath after it used its casting vote in Belfast council to limit the flying of the union flag, had made marginal gains in recent elections.

However its victory in the East Belfast Westminster seat at the last general election was in large part accidental.

Thousands of Protestant working class voters lined up behind the Alliance Party in order to deliver a bloody nose to Peter Robinson who was mired in a corruption scandal at the time.

Demographic change

While most of the rioting has involved Protestant youths battling with the police there has been a number of clashes between Catholics and Protestants especially at the Short Strand/Lower Newtownards Road interface area.

Dissident republican paramilitaries have consciously intervened to stoke the fires of sectarian division “offering” to “defend” the Short Strand.

The SDLP and Sinn Féin encourage Catholics to view this issue as a simple one of “democracy”, often employing strident and sectarian language.

In their view Belfast is now a majority Catholic or nationalist city and consequently the union flag should come down.

This reflects the argument that demographic change is inexorably moving in one direction. At a certain time a tipping point will be reached and the majority of the population of Northern Ireland will be Catholic. Sinn Féin essentially holds that Protestants should “accept reality” and “move on”.

This line of argument displays a profound amnesia. For three generations Catholics in Northern Ireland refused to recognise the “democracy” of Northern Ireland.

In their view they had been coerced into an artificial statelet and they would not bow down and accept this situation.

They were perfectly justified in this stance. Why now do nationalist and republican politicians assume that Protestants must accept the formal democracy of losing their majority position in the North, despite their fears of what a capitalist united Ireland would mean for them?

Political alternative

The picture is in many ways bleak but this can change, and change quickly. The trade unions are best placed to bring together workers in the workplaces and communities to discuss contentious issues, as well as burning class questions, and where possible initiate cross community, anti-sectarian committees that can counter sectarianism, including sectarian attacks on either community, and offer a class alternative.

Against the current background of conflict sectarian politicians continue to impose cuts on all workers. Northern Ireland will be hit harder than anywhere else by cuts in welfare payments.

The abolition of the public sector body which is responsible for housing, the Housing Executive, was announced by DUP minister Nelson McCausland, on 9 January.

The Assembly continues its deliberations over the future of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) but clearly intends to make sharp cuts in this vital student allowance.

Large-scale working class opposition to the cuts has already been expressed on the streets and in the workplaces in 2010 and 2011. But since 30 November 2011 there has been a lull in the class struggle.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of workers and young people are opposed to the violence. There is a widespread sense of unease that Northern Ireland is being dragged back to its more violent past.

In each community there are many who are consciously anti-sectarian and who see clearly the role of the sectarian politicians.

The majority of both Catholics and Protestants however are divided on the issue of the union flag.

So far there has not been an opportunity for the working class as a whole to give voice to its opposition to the violence.

There has been two “peace” demonstrations in Belfast city centre each drawing crowds of about 1,000. The organisers have insisted that the protests are non-political.

Such an approach will not succeed in mobilising working class people from either community. The issues are very much political.

Twenty years ago the Socialist Party pioneered an approach on the issue of contentious parades which focused on recognising the rights of each community, but also on the over-arching right of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into conflict. A similar approach should be taken now.

However, if a political alternative is not built, then reactionary, sectarian groups can develop further and gain support.

A new mass party of the working class, which actively combats sectarianism, is urgently needed.

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