North Belfast: Denying the needs, frustrating the right

A recent article by Gary Mulcahy in the July/August edition of The Socialist dealt with the emergence of residents’ groups in North Belfast. The article was in line with the narrative that the Socialist Party espouses. Here Gerry Ruddy looks at where such a narrative leads in the context of the sectarian divided in the North of Ireland.

[Originally published in the Red Plough Volume 4-7]

The narrative of the Socialist Party is along the following lines: republicans are sectarian, residents’ groups are sectarian, demands for housing in North Belfast are sectarian, the Orange Order is sectarian but has a right to march and the only way forward is the building of a new mass party of the working class under the leadership of the trade union movement. Until such time as a mass Labour Party is established... meanwhile join the Socialist Party and fight against capitalism, sectarianism, etc.

Comrade Mulcahy specifically writes:

“There have been several attempts in recent years by republicans in North Belfast to mobilise on the theme of civil rights - highlighting the lack of housing in Catholic areas - a sectarian position which divides rather than unites working class people.”

This is an odious position for a socialist to take. Perhaps Comrade Mulcahy missed this:

“The Committee is concerned about the chronic shortage of housing, in particular social housing, for the most disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, such as... Catholic families in Northern Belfast, in spite of the financial resources provided, and other measures taken, by the State party in this regard.” (Concluding Observations of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, May 2009)

A leading trade unionist and former activist in the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s was the late Inez McCormick. She founded The Participation and the Practice of Rights organisation (PPR), which was recognised by the United Nations in November 2012 for its work on housing in Northern Ireland.

In May 2012 Inez wrote:

“Any decision on housing in North Belfast has to evidence how it will concretely address the inequality experienced, in this case, by the Catholic community. Attempting to build good relations on the basis of denying the needs, frustrating the rights, and silencing the voices of the poorest is wrong in itself as it is destructive to the goal of building a shared future.” (Inez McCormack, PPR Founder, May 2012).

Was her activity both in the sixties and prior to her death sectarian? Did she in either period take a sectarian position? To even ask such a question shows the utter absurdity of Comrade Mulcahy’s position.

The PPR launched a report on housing in north Belfast as recently as August 22rd 2013 called Equality Cannot Wait. This report points out:

“The Catholic community in North Belfast has long been impacted by religious inequality in housing. PPR has worked on housing issues with people on the ground in North Belfast over the last seven years. Our work is showing that Catholics in North Belfast in need of housing have been repeatedly disadvantaged. This includes the failure of the £133 million North Belfast Housing Strategy to tackle inequality; the engineering of a Belfast City Centre ‘shared space’ being prioritised over addressing existing Catholic housing need; and the removal of protections which ‘ring-fenced’ new social homes for areas impacted by religious inequality.”

Currently on the website of the PPR is the following:

“Yesterday (19th September 2013) five north Belfast residents hand delivered letters and evidence to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive of their continuing dire housing circumstances.

“Hugh McAuley lives on the 12 floor of Finn House, one of the Seven Towers high rise flats in north Belfast, with his four children. Hugh posted all five residents’ testimonies to the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland MLA this morning (20th September 2013), including photographic and medical evidence of the impact of living in unacceptable housing conditions on each resident and their families.The residents’ testimonies detail how they, and other families, are being forced to live in cold and damp high rise accommodation, with little or no accessibility or space for children’s play and development.They detail how families have been forced to go without heat or hot water for over a month with no remedy.They detail how families have waited for years in ‘temporary’ hostels in cramped conditions and environments with their children.They detail how each resident’s health and wellbeing is affected in very different ways by the failure of the Department for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to recognise and address the chronic problem of Catholic inequality in housing impacting north Belfast.”

There is enough evidence to show that neither the Housing Executive nor the Power Sharing Executive want, or desire, to tackle the housing problems of North Belfast. By labelling efforts to highlight the plight of the homeless in North Belfast, the Socialist Party are in effect providing political cover for both those organisations.

Sectarianism is institutionalised in the Northern State. All of the Government institutions and agencies were geared for over fifty years to maintaining Unionist control of the state. They did this by marginalising the nationalist population, confining them to ghettoes, depriving them of well paid jobs and harassing those who objected to their second class status with the full force of the RUC and the B specials. Although there have been changes since the fall of the old Stormont, the institutions have not yet eradicated their institutional bias.

For example after 22 years from the fall of Stormont:

“The under representation of middle class Catholics within the upper reaches of the occupational hierarchy has inevitably served to ensure that northern nationalists have remained marginal to the operation of the Northern Irish economy. The lack of strategic economy power possessed by Catholic professionals was graphically illustrated in a recent survey conducted by a local firm of management consultants. The agency concerned compiled a list of those figures considered to exercise ‘control or influence’ over the economic life of the province. Of the one thousand individuals identified only 85 came from the catholic community.” (from Irish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 4, 1994, pp 1-26, “Class Ethnicity and Political Identity in Northern Ireland", Colin Coulter).

Of course there can be little doubt that the position of the catholic middle classes has improved since then. Once the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership decided to ditch their socialist cover, shed most of their republicanism and embrace northern nationalism then the way was cleared for the catholic middle classes to embrace the new “Northern Ireland” and rise up the economic ladder.

That in itself produced an inevitable reaction. As many of us in the radical left predicted back in 1969 the granting of equality within the unionist state would lead to the alienation of the Protestant working class who would lose material benefits under capitalism.

Sadly that has now come to pass. And yet some sections of that class have fallen victim to the same old sectarian games played by their political leaders aided and abetted by those academics that have pushed the Northern Ireland Office Line that the conflict here is in essence a cultural conflict.

Hence the nonsense about “flegs” and denial of cultural rights. So called “British Culture” is not under threat. However, it suits political unionism to pretend it is in order to keep the working classes at each other’s throats. The recent outburst by the first Minister, Peter Robinson, in Stormont against the TUV’s [Traditional Unionist Voice] Jim Allister shows the true face of Northern Unionism – “never sell property to Catholics”. That has always been the way that unionism has kept control – keep the taigs out [Note: Taig is a derogatory term for an Irish Catholic. used by sectarian loyalists]. That is why in North Belfast there is a red line that Catholics can not cross to be housed.

Within the lower Oldpark in North Belfast decent houses lie empty within a so called “Protestant” area while Catholics wait years for decent homes. Sadly both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have bought into this approach in order to maintain what little remains of the Good Friday Agreement.

We warned then in 1998 that a vote for the GFA was a vote to continue to sectarianise the northern statelet, but the Socialist Party in its wisdom called for and voted yes to that Agreement. They did this despite recognising that the Good Friday Agreement, “In short it institutionalized sectarianism.” And their reasons for calling for a yes vote do not stand up: “a 'no' vote would have strengthened the camp of sectarian reaction and would have put the peace process in jeopardy.” [See Towards Division Not Peace – Anglo Irish Agreement , By Peter Hadden, October-November 2001]

They failed to distinguish between peace and “the peace process.” The peace process was a clear strategy by the British to halt, hinder and destroy the continuing republican resistance to British rule in Ireland. By endorsing the peace process they endorsed that strategy.

Denying the existence of reality is not the way for a socialist organisation to behave. Rather than oppose sectarianism, they have in effect reached an accommodation with it. They pay lip service to the national question but never have actually engage in any activity that could be identified with issues arising from the national question. Rather they have settled for James Connolly in words and William Walker in deeds!

It needs to be spelt out clearly that sectarianism has a real material basis:

“Sectarianism is not a superstructural phenomenon floating free of an abstract economic base which in turn is divided into classes. In Northern Ireland sectarian divisions is a material reality which has been constituted and re-constituted throughout the history of capital accumulation and class struggle as a whole. It is not merely an overlay on class divisions to be seen as something which is either more or less important than class. As a material reality it has a history embedded in colonisation industrial revolution and the emergence of new class forms under capitalism.” (A.R. Finlay – 1989)

Note especially the phrase “embedded in colonisation, industrial revolution and the emergence of new class forms under capitalism.”

It is this that the passive left chooses to ignore rather than admit the reality. Rather than accept the fact that the northern state is institutionalised bias and that the sectarianism has a real material basis they spin a false narrative. They give a totally inaccurate picture of what is actually happening to justify their simplistic narrative. For example, they have equated a Republican commemoration to Henry Joy McCracken with over six months of loyalist protests, sectarian marches and hateful attacks. That commemoration was begun before the start of the loyalist protests and was non contentious in its first year. Its organisers were totally committed to a non sectarian approach. (See video). [Note: Henry Joy McCracken (1767-98) was a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen that had within it both Catholics and Protestants. He was hanged in 1798 in Belfast].

But reality must not be allowed to dictate the narrative of the passive left. Such a description is a reasonably accurate portrayal of those leftist organisations that suck up to the trade union bureaucrats pass resolutions at sparsely attended union branches and then claim to have campaigned against repression and the state. Bollocks! These same leftists would not be seen dead on an actual serious protest against repression of republicans or indeed anyone who poses a threat to the state.

What was it Lenin said?

“Social-Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness.” (What is to be done)

Yes, take up the political education of the working class. How can you take up that task if you consistently distort reality? Homeless North Belfast Catholics are discriminated against when it comes to housing. To call campaigns against that “sectarian” is to pander to the lowest level of loyalism. It also alienates Catholic workers from these self confessed socialists. That is no way for “Leninists” to behave. Lenin was very clear as to what the political education of the working class was to be:

“It is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed (any more than it is to explain to them that their interests are antagonistic to the interests of the employers). Agitation must be conducted with regard to every concrete example of this oppression (as we have begun to carry on agitation round concrete examples of economic oppression). Inasmuch as this oppression affects the most diverse classes of society, inasmuch as it manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity — vocational, civic, personal, family, religious, scientific, etc., etc. — is it not evident that we shall not be fulfilling our task of developing the political consciousness of the workers if we do not undertake the organisation of the political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects?” (Ibid)

Furthermore he was very specific:

“In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government”. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.” (Ibid)

Can this be any clearer? The issue of housing has been sectarianised by those who run the state. To highlight that issue and to campaign against it is in the real traditions of the revolutionaries who have gone before us. You cannot fool the working class by pretending that there is no discrimination taking place. Nor can you win people to the banner of socialism if you call efforts to highlight discrimination “sectarian”.