As this article was written on 14 July, during reports of a fourth day of rioting involving the throwing of a pipe bomb at police officers in Crumlin Road in North Belfast and other clashes involving the use of petrol bombs in East Belfast are starting to appear in the media.
These events follow on from extremely violent clashes on the annually July 12th parade as the Orange order attempted to defy the Parades Commission and march through a nationalist area by forcing through a police line on Woodvale Road. On a superficial level the outbreak of serious disorder and altercations between Loyalists and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as well as reinforcements from Britain seem perverse. How could followers of an ideology based on support for being part of Britain and the crown clash with its upholders of law and order? Yet the political contradictions that belay loyalism and its changing relationship with the British state and cleavages between its rank and file supporters and official political parties are sharpening.
The Orange Order was established as a counter-revolutionary organisation with the purpose of suppressing the struggle for a united Ireland and social revolution through both violent extra-parliamentary action and consolidating a cross-class unionist coalition which would block working class unity. Its origins lie in the British state’s campaign against the United Irishmen led revolutionary movement of the 1790s, which climaxed in the 1798 rebellion. Ever since then the British state has relied on Orangeism and Loyalism more broadly to suppress and divide republican and labour movement struggles.
During the Irish war of independence hysterical loyalist mobs were mobilised in the north to suppress republican activity and enforce sectarian divisions.This was institutionalised in the ‘Orange State’ which emerged in the north from the partition of Ireland in 1921. The Ulster Unionist Party dominated official politics between 1921 and 1972 in a Gerrymandered electoral system whilst Catholics were denied basic civil rights. This was enforced through both the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and ‘volunteer’ Ulster Defence Regiment, little more than state backed paramilitaries. However, loyalism was never simply a state conspiracy it was a mass social and political phenomena with a material basis in the relatively privileged position Protestants enjoyed over catholics in the north. The monopoly on comparatively well paid and secure heavy industrial jobs male Protestant workers enjoyed alongside the stoked up propaganda of the ever present threat of the Catholic church and republicanism, both in the south and amongst the nationalist population of the north consolidated this cross-class movement.
Yet, tensions have often been present in loyalism between its adherents and the state. During periods of acute economic, social and political crisis populist forms of loyalism utilising the rhetoric of ‘betrayal’ by the British state and professing loyalty to the crown and Protestant religion against the prevailing government in London prepared to sell-out the loyalist cause have emerged. This was evident in 1913 when the Ulster Volunteers’ Force (UVF) was established illegally, but with support of large sections of the military and Tory establishment, in opposition to the Liberal government’s proposals for Home Rule. It was also expressed in 1974 when the Ulster Workers’ [sic!] Council at the behest of both the UVF and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) led a 14 day ‘strike’ against power-sharing with republicans which involved paramilitaries killing 39 people. However, broadly through this period the British security forces continued to cooperate with loyalist death-squad paramilitaries who they saw as being on ‘their’ side against the IRA and the nationalist population more generally.
The current juncture has its origins in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the dismantling of much of what was ostensibly ‘Orange’ about the Northern state. This included the highly damaging requirement that loyalists and nationalists share power, effectively forcing unionist parties to be in coalition with Sinn Fein and more broadly a symbolic recognition of nationalist ‘community’ and social rights such as official recognition of the Irish language and the expansion of large numbers of community projects in nationalist areas. Alongside this the late twentieth century led to intensified deindustrialisation which eroded many of the privileges that Protestants had traditionally enjoyed whilst the Catholic middle class expanded and profited from the Good Friday Agreement’s provision of jobs and the ensuing property boom. In the period that has followed; the political forces of unionism have become splintered. The Ulster Unionist Party has been replaced by the more extreme Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the main loyalist party. Some DUP members have crossed over to the far-right Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) which decries the Good Friday Agreement and dreams of a return to an idealised version of a past where the protestant population happily lorded over the north and Catholics knew their place.
Loyalist anger has recently been expressed through rioting around the annual July 12th parades. Traditionally Orangemen were able to feel like a king for the day by lighting huge bonfires the night before, topped with Catholic and republican symbols, and spent the next day marching through nationalist communities with the support of state forces. These parades traditionally served the function of consolidating loyalism’s cross-class bloc and blowing off accumulated steam and anger against the Catholic population rather than the bosses. However, as these parades have become contentious under the post-Good Friday regime they have equally become a battleground between loyalists and the police. Early July has over the last few years seen clashes between the PSNI and loyalist youth.
However, the scale and violence of this year’s protests make clear the gulf of the escalating crisis of loyalism. The extreme nature of the efforts to force their way past PSNI lines at Woodvale Road in a protest march called by the leadership of the Orange Order against the Parades Commission’s decision to ban them from this makes this clear. 47 officers were wounded in an operation that not only involved PSNI officers but reinforcements from across Britain, reminiscent of the days of direct military occupation. Incidents included a baton being taken from officers and then used repeatedly against them and a tricolour being placed over a PSNI Landover and set alight. We need to be clear that these actions and those that have followed are not the actions of a small minority of dissident troublemakers. Some of those involved in the second of the incidents mentioned were sash wearing official members of the Orange Order rather than merely being young hangers on. This was an official march and in its aftermath there were was an open political clash between the PSNI chief Matt Baggott and the leadership of the Orange Order who had declared the need for protests on July 11th. Baggott argued that leading the protest into a police line with nowhere to go was a failure of leadership and inevitably created the violent situation.
This clash would have been unthinkable in the past. Baggott may well be correct that a riot was the inevitable outcome of this situation, but it’s difficult to argue the Order’s leadership didn’t know this. After all the same day Mervyn Gibson, the Orange Order Grand Chaplain praised the ‘flag protests’ which happened over the winter arguing “the flag protesters did this generation a great service by waking us from our slumber - apathy, pessimism and defeatism were walking us into a united Ireland.”< http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-23267038> He went onto state that loyalism was engaged in a “cultural war” with republicanism and that the loyalist tradition must be defended whilst the state cooperated in the erosion of its traditions.
This marks a significant step-up in the growing political crisis facing loyalism. It indicates that the flag protests were only one state of a developing situation. Then, as now, on a local level the normal workings of society, and therefore of the capitalist economy, for days and weeks on end were hampered and in some cases totally prevented. The sowing of a violent division between the Orange Order and the state it once rested on is an important development, whilst unionist politicians will struggle to maintain a balance between the Good Friday agreement they are wedded to and have personally benefited from on the one hand and an increasingly hostile population that is pushing the Orange Order into opposition.
Fightback takes no pleasure from these events. It’s not just been officers and Orange marchers but also innocent members of the nationalist community in particular who have been impacted by the events of the last few days, as they also faced the sectarian spite on display during the flag protests. But the current events are a strong expression of the political dead-end Good Friday has provided and symptoms of the deepening social and economic decline that austerity and recession have created. They confirm that socialism cannot be constructed in the North on the basis of some sort of ‘economist’ pact with loyalism that does not mention ‘the border’ in favour of ‘bread and butter’ or as Connolly called it “gas and water” issues. They are evidence of the sectarian nature of loyalism, the history of the northern state and the highly volatile nature of its modern social and political base. We can only overcome this by clearly arguing for a solution based on class struggle for a united socialist Ireland. This will not be a short path or an easy road but is the only one which can overcome the quagmire of the north today.