Over the last month the announcement that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned all its weapons was drowned out by the blasts of the loyalist paramilitaries using theirs. The worst scenes of violence witnessed in years only made the lead item on British TV news until England secured their victory over Australia in the Ashes.
The media here continue to claim the peace process is succeeding, remaining silent about the increase in sectarianism and the failure of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), so that when scenes like those witnessed a few weeks ago are reported they come as a shock. Yet these events were not some one-off moment of madness that can quickly be forgotten. They were the climax of an ugly and violent mood that has been building up all summer, including a bitter and bloody feud between rival loyalist gangs.
There has been a dramatic increase in extreme sectarian violence against Catholics in the Ballymena area (represented in parliament by the DUP leader Ian Paisley), for example, but this goes unreported. Nothing must tarnish the image of “peace” in their propaganda.
The success of that “peace process” was supposed to be celebrated with a live link to the Last Night of the Proms from a stage in front of the City Hall. But the Union Jacks waving in Belfast weren’t swaying to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory. While the orchestra fiddled, the streets of Belfast burned and reverberated to the sound of gunfire, bomb blasts and water canon.
Bricks and bullets flew and burning barricades were erected across the city; petrol and blast bombs were thrown at the police and Army. Automatic gunfire was heard amid the wreckage of the debris-strewn Shankill area. Scenes more reminiscent of Iraq than "peace-time" Belfast were repeated at flashpoints all over the north and west of the city.
The spark that lit this blaze was the rerouting of one relatively small Orange march at Whiterock in north Belfast, by less than 100 metres, away from Catholic homes and the gate in the peace wall – that solid evidence of the failure of the Good Friday Agreement ‑ between the two communities being welded shut so it could not be forced.
This was the spark, but the combustible material was provided by years of sectarian propaganda that the GFA was a step towards a united Ireland where the Protestants would be an oppressed minority, swapping places with the Catholic population of the six counties. It was provided by the appalling social and economic conditions facing young working class Protestants, and it was provided by the criminal feuds of the loyalist gangsters and their battles over territory.
The Orange Order and unionist politicians whipped up the fears of Protestant working class people about the erosion of their “cultural traditions” (i.e. the “right to march” through Catholic areas). There has been much written about this “right to march”, but there is a clear difference between the right to demonstrate, to protest, or even to celebrate some historical event and parading your superiority in the faces of residents in their own homes. There can be no such “right”.
The loyalist murder gangs of the UDA, the UVF and the LVF temporarily put aside their differences (the turf war between the UVF and the LVF had already claimed the lives of four Protestants this summer) and came onto the streets in a show of force attacking the police and trying to provoke a reaction from local residents in a wide number of areas.
In an attempt to retrospectively justify the violence, politicians from all the Unionist parties suddenly discovered the marginalised and neglected position of the Protestant working class. These are the same politicians who for years only waved the Union Jack to distract those same people from their real social and economic conditions.
Of course, what this is all about is the battle for control of the Protestant masses by the various elements of unionism using the sectarian card. It is about maintaining the unnatural division upon which the sectarian politicians feed, and upon which the continuation of the capitalist system rests.
It is striking that the main complaint made by the loyalist rioters was that the authorities are doing too many favours for the “other side” ‑ that is, for republicans and nationalists. There is high unemployment and widespread social decay among working-class Protestant communities in West Belfast and elsewhere; this undoubtedly played its part in swelling the ranks of the riots. At the same time they were being stirred up by loyalist claims that their community is being ignored while republicans, in their eyes, are being feted.
According to The Guardian website one rioter complained that the government is “ignoring us” while “always listening to the republicans and Catholics”. Another pointed to the Catholic ghetto of New Lodge and said, “They are getting everything that's going. We are getting nothing. They've got new doors and new floors.”
David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party that grew out of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the mid-1990s, said the riots were caused by a “sense that the Unionist community has been set aside while the [British] government plays footsie with the republicans.”
A similar line was being put forward by the Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley, as he denied whipping up the trouble. He claimed Protestants were being deprived their fair share of government money. But while unionist politicians argue that their working class areas suffer "the worst social and economic deprivation in Europe", a government report found "Catholics are more likely to live in areas that are less organised and less able to attract funding". Official government figures suggest that Protestants continue to have better job prospects than Catholics, as we reported last month.
In truth both are right. The fact is that the working class of all backgrounds endure appalling social and economic decay. The blame lies not with one or other section of working class people but with the capitalist system which so ruthlessly divides workers in order to keep them in their place.
It is also evident that Protestant communities are being corroded from within by paramilitarism. The Ulster Volunteer Force is furious with the police for attempting to thwart the murderous feud in which it hopes to obliterate its rival, the drug-financed Loyalist Volunteer Force. Riots had already erupted over recent weeks when police tried to make searches linked to the feud.
This tension was further stoked when Paisley threatened that the Whiterock parade could prove "the spark which kindles a fire there could be no putting out". Paisley had been due to address the parade before the rally was abandoned when loyalist paramilitaries opened fire on the police and army and the first gun battle broke out.
The march clearly provided an excuse for the two major outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, to launch a pre-planned rebellion against police authority. To the extent that they have any political aim it is to overturn the Good Friday Agreement and maintain sectarian division. Much of their activities are linked to criminal battles over territory, drug dealing and money laundering.
Some of those on the streets were there because of the appalling conditions they face, and the sectarian politicians are whipping them up into a frenzy by blaming the Catholic population for supposedly “getting their share.” Here one sees a glimpse of what would happen were there any real attempt to unite Ireland on a capitalist basis.
It is clear from all that they have said and done over the past year, that the leadership of Unionism is not even prepared to countenance a power sharing government with nationalists. Sinn Féin's main Protestant opponents, the Democratic Ulster Unionist party, have refused to discuss restoring the assembly until the IRA proves it has given up arms for good. Meanwhile, the loyalist paramilitaries continue not only to hold weapons but to use them.
Sinn Fein has donned the worn out, second-hand clothes of the SDLP but this will not get them into power. Destroying most of the weapons of the Provisional IRA will not either. Their policy is now based upon sharing office north and south of the border. They are unlikely to achieve either goal. Even if they did gain such seats this would solve nothing for the working class. It would not create one job or build one house. All that working class people can look forward to in the coming years is more of the same, more sectarian violence, more loyalist attacks and feuds, more unemployment. The social and economic conditions of working class Protestants and Catholics will not improve under this system. They will not be improved while they remain divided by fear and sectarianism.
There is no peace. There is no move towards unification. There is no basis for creating jobs, building better housing or improving healthcare and education. Even if Stormont were to meet they would be able to do nothing about the problems facing working people. They would simply implement the British government’s policy of privatisation, the DUP, the UUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP alike.
The Good Friday Agreement has provided not one step towards Ireland’s unity. On the contrary it has legitimised and constitutionalised partition. It has not brought even limited devolution and democracy to the six counties. The democracy of Stormont is turned on and off like a tap at Westminster. If and when it does meet it is a temporary balancing act between sectarian parties. Assembly members make decisions not by “a simple majority” as in other parliaments, but on the basis of what is called “sufficiency of consensus” ‑ basically meaning that “any agreement that was to be put to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum would have the broad agreement of the representatives of both parts of the community.” This presents Catholics and Protestants as utterly irreconcilable communities, with sectarianism used constitutionally to mask the shared interests of the working class.
The GFA has not created peace, but endless peace walls, the segregation of workplaces and communities, the creation of a form of apartheid – with this difference, the Protestant working class do not enjoy a pampered existence, only the fear of worsening their already appalling conditions.
It has not removed troops from the streets. Hain and co have promised to cut troop numbers (currently there are more British soldiers in the six counties than in Iraq). Nevertheless more than 5000 are to remain.
The real achievements of the Good Friday Agreement are: segregation, increased sectarianism, and the reinforcement of the crime of partition. The peace process has been from the very beginning a sham, and a lie, and a trap. It is presented by Sinn Fein as a step towards unity and a spurious equality to bolster their electoral support, and simultaneously it is presented by the UUP as a step towards unity and inferiority to whip up fear amongst the Protestant population.
Protestant working class people will never accept minority status in an Ireland of poverty and deprivation, the only Ireland capitalism can ever offer. Catholic workers will never get jobs, houses, or schools from the profit system. Sinn Fein’s waffle about “equality” and “esteem” echo Blair’s words about “equality of opportunity.” Capitalism can offer no such equality, only a redistribution of poverty, solving none of the problems of workers from any background but adding fuel to the fires of sectarianism.
It is not equality of poverty under capitalism that is required but working class unity in a struggle against capitalist poverty, exploitation and oppression. The events of the recent weeks demonstrate that achieving such working class unity is more difficult than ever. For all that, the only way to defeat British imperialism and capitalist exploitation is, as James Connolly explained nearly a century ago, through the united working class struggle for socialism. Every other method has ended in abject failure.