On August 2007 just before the melt down in world capitalism the unemployment figure in the North of Ireland was 23,700. In December 2012 that figure was 62,200. It is the largest figure it has been for more than 15 years. (Irish News 24/1/12)
That is approximately 7.9%, the highest of any region within the control of the Westminster Government. 55% of those have been unemployed for more than a year. On top of that it is estimated that the number of economically inactive persons is about 548,000 or 26.9% of those aged 16-64 compared to the UK average rate of 22.5%.
While these figures are below that of the South where the unemployment rate is 14.7%, compared to the EU average of 10.7%, they still represent a devastating blow to the daily lives of many working families in the North.
Dominant local problems are long term unemployment and youth unemployment. The welfare 'reforms' introduced by the British Government and slavishly followed by the Stormont administration are a direct attack on the working classes. Poor health, poor education, lack of decent affordable housing and spirally living costs and child care costs are all impacting on the working classes. And poverty does not recognise religion!!
One area badly affected by the economic downturn and also the past 30 years of de-industrialisation is East Belfast. Here was once the heart of the North's industrial strength- shipyards, aircraft manufacturing, and engineering. It was these industries that provided the jobs that bound the protestant proletariat to the skirts of Ulster Unionism. Moreover the Ulster Unionist Party, for long the dominate force in the North and the ruling Party for fifty years, was established under the auspices of the Orange Order, an extreme anti-catholic organisation which originally had 25% of the ruling council seats.
Only within this generation has that Party lost the guaranteed seats for the Orange Order on its ruling council.
Thus historically there has been a link between sectarian attitudes and job security. James Connolly in his day referred to Protestant working class defending its better "conditions of servitude" as compared to the catholic working class. This is not to say that poverty was all one sided.
Far from it. Indeed on many occasions class emerged as an issue within the protestant working class. In East Belfast in particular the Communist Party had 4,000 votes and the Labour candidate had 44% of the vote, in the famous 1945 election. That election saw Labour elected in the UK with a mandate to establish a welfare State.
In 1950 in the same East Belfast constituency the Labour candidate received over 37% and as late as 1970 the Labour candidate had 40.5%of the vote.
So historically there was a long tradition of leftist/labour aspirations within many of the working class in East Belfast. While that tradition has been muted ever since the emergence of the civil rights movement and the manipulated loyalist backlash (manipulated by the Unionist ascendancy using lumpen proletarian elements as its storm troopers) it has never completely disappeared. Indeed there were former members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party who ended up in paramilitary groups like the UVF and their attempted to give it a leftist gloss. (Including at one stage the PUP accepting Clause 4 of the Labour party in its constitution.)
Now however when East Belfast is mentioned it is not social economic conditions that come to mind, nor its mildly radical voting patterns. No, it is all about "our wee fleg"(local accents!) and embittered and ingrained sectarianism.
For example on Friday evening Jan, 11th a meeting of right-wing loyalists, held in the "Constitutional Club" in East Belfast made a decision to attack the nationalist Short Strand from the Albertbridge end of that district, following an illegal march from the centre of Belfast the next day. Fortunately the residents of Short Stand were warned the next morning and when the attack took place on the Saturday afternoon, residents defended the area in hand to hand fighting with loyalist attackers. Unfortunately a number of homes were also badly damaged by the attackers.
The police force, now called the PSNI, but still regarded by many Republicans as the old RUC, failed not only to police the marchers on their way to the Albertbridge road but has consistently over a six week period facilitated illegal marches and road blocks by a few hundred loyalist protestors. Their excuse- human rights issues
The roadblocks have been deemed as “peaceful” despite the presence of armed masked men, including paramilitaries, who have denied members of all communities access to their homes and essential services. One episode was when an elderly man was denied entry through a Loyalist roadblock in order to visit his dying wife. He was jeered as he was forced to turn back, in full view of the PSNI.
Loyalists attacking police
Why were the loyalists protesting? Why sectarian attacks on homes of ordinary decent catholic and protestants? Why this sudden manifestation of loyalist anger? Although on the surface the simple issue seemed to be about "flegs" a much more complex layer of reasons rests beneath the surface.
A vote was taken by Belfast City Council to fly the Union Flag only on 17, now 18 days, designated days a years rather than 365 days.
Prior to that vote the DUP and the Unionist Party, the two main unionist parties in Belfast Council circulated 40,000 bogus leaflets targeting the middle of the road Alliance Party whose eventual compromise motion to fly the Union Jack on designated days was carried.
The unionists targeted the Alliance Party because in the previous General election Alliance won the seat from the DUP leader, Peter Robinson. The leaflets whipped up the sectarian tensions and a Facebook campaign urged loyalists on to the streets.
The result was a vicious campaign against the Alliance Party which saw their premises attacked, one office totally destroyed, death threats against their MP and Councillors and daily pickets outside their offices. There have now been a wide series of pickets marches, road blockages creating traffic grid lock, disrupting city centre night life and causing cancellations of public transport.
Unfortunately for the Unionist Parties that which they unleashed they found that they could not control. Instead what the leader of the PUP, Billy Hutchinson described as a "peoples revolution" by-passed political control. Initially the PUP and the UVF had no problem with the protests. They had been making noises for over a year when it emerged that one of their leading figures, Gary Haggarty, a long time police informer had gone into police protective custody and was prepared to testify in court against his former comrades. This could mean that, the long term leadership of the UVF, who had accepted the 1998 ceasefires, find themselves in prison.
However it soon became clear that the organisers of what came to be called the Ulster Peoples Forum were not necessarily amenable to control from loyalist paramilitaries or the mainstream Unionist parties. Among their demands were calls for a return to direct rule, the end of concessions to nationalists and an end to cultural apartheid. While mainstream Unionists reject the direct rule demand they were quite happy to raise other demands. For example the TUV leader, Jim Allister and other elected politicians picked up on the 'cultural apartheid"phrase and are using it as a stick to attack Sinn Fein. This is indeed laughable because the very essence of unionism has been its desire to separate protestants from catholics and keep them within Unionist control. It is no accident that all sections of Unionism came together to purchase arms from the apartheid regime in South Africa and its security forces used the loyalist paramilitaries to target anti-apartheid academic opponents in the North of Ireland.
Social deprivation and poor educational attainment among protestant working class were among the other issues raised by these politicians jumping on the band wagon. But the reality is that these were tacked on to the broad flag campaign to give some semblance of credibility to that campaign.
What they forget is that independent unionist MLA, Dawn Purvis convened a working group on educational disadvantage and the Protestant working class, which published its report in March 2011. Dawn had been leader of the PUP and broke with it when it refused to distance itself from the UVF. There was little or no reaction from the mainstream politicians to that report. It was ignored.
What had appeared to be a spontaneous outburst of loyalist anger organised on Facebook took on a different complexion when it became clear who actually were behind the protests. One of the main organisers of the Ulster Peoples' Forum was a former member of the BNP. Another Willie Frazier, a former spokesperson for South Armagh Unionist victims of the conflict is a maverick politician who has previously stood in elections against mainstream Unionism and who claims the IRA put horse meat in the burgers! Two others were quickly associated with the PUP or singing the praises of the UVF. One of these is Jamie Bryson a young bands member proud to be associated with the UVF which he refers to as the 'Peoples Army.'
Blinded by sectarian hatred, some sections of the loyalist working class believe the lies peddled by their "betters" in the petit bourgeoisie and main bourgeoisie.
Middle class unionism has always used the protestant proletariant as their shock troops against socialist and anti-imperialist forces. Irish history is littered with the reactionary actions of those under the thumb of the Loyal Orders and their landowning aristocracy.
Outflanked on the right wing, the PUP, political voice of the UVF moved to try to control the protests. Hutchinson who had, when a councillor, voted for the designated days rather than 365 flying of the flags, mobilised his forces both within the UVF and the PUP to regain control of the situation realising that the new protestors could outflank his movement.
A new more political figure operating with a well known community worker in the area, took over the strategic direction of the UVF outflanking the East Belfast commander, Matthews, who was more interested in violence and consolidating his drug empire.
After six weeks of mayhem the penny had dropped on the establishment organisations that the UPF was out of control. A co-ordinated series of events including public statements from unionist community groups clergymen and all the loyalist paramilitary groups and including a meeting between the Head of the PSNI, Baggot and the UVF/ RHC/and the UDA were organised.
The message was clear-the violence had to stop and for its part the PSNI under pressure from commercial interests in Belfast agreed to gradually clamp down on both the illegal road blockages and the illegal marches.
That the police and the paramilitaries should not only meet but agree, as they did to jointly police a rally and march called for Saturday 19th of January should surprise no one.
As far back as 1972 William Whitelaw, then British overlord in the North meet 3 times with the UDA, twice when they wore hoods and dark glasses and once when he met the whole inner council of the UDA. Remember this was at a time when loyalists had begun a sectarian murder campaign against Catholics, which the RUC referred to as "motiveless murders" and did little about. Parallel with this was a paper circulated to the British Government by the head of the British Army in the North, General Tuzo, which said,
"Vigilantes whether UDA or not should be discreetly encouraged in Protestant areas to reduce the load on the security forces"
That same year the British army and the UDA held joint patrols in the Shankill areas of Belfast. From then to now the British have used loyalist paramilitaries as a shock force against Republicans, Nationalists and the general Catholic population in the North. This despite all the so called changes introduced following the Good Friday Agreement.
The manner in which the PSNI dealt with the loyalist protestors contrasted very sharply with the way in which they deal with republican protests.
"The PSNI response was not to “sweep” Residents away, but to use dogs, armed men’s fists and batons to remove people. 29 Residents and supporters were subsequently charged, taken to court and prosecuted, with many going to jail and others currently being pursued under live arrest warrants to be taken to Maghaberry. "(GARC statement)
Following the attempted invasion of the Short Strand both the leaderships of the mainstream republicans and loyalist groups realised that if the crisis continued then the so called dissidents on either side could gain influence and support. So leading figures from the Provos moved into the Short Strand and identified with those who had repulsed the loyalist attacks. It was the defence of the Short Strand in 1969 by Provos under veteran republican, Billy McKee that enabled the Provos to become the dominant voice within Belfast Republicanism. Therefore there was no way that the Provos could stand by and let others emerge as "defenders of the Short Strand".
Years of work managing the sectarian carve up that was the result of the GFA were in jeopardy from the protests. While tit for tat sectarian attacks have been a feature of life in the lower end of East Belfast for generations they had in recent years been managed to be kept under control However there is no equivalence in the tit for tat. Reactionary loyalist and Orange bigots egged on by the unionist bourgeoisie have instigated attack after attack over the years, on the tiny enclave of nationalist Short Strand.
James Connolly who had direct knowledge of the sectarianism in Belfast wrote,
"Let us remember that the Orange aristocracy now fighting for its supremacy in Ireland has at all times been based upon a denial of the common human rights of the Irish people; that the Orange Order was not founded to safeguard religious freedom, but to deny religious freedom, and that it raised this religious question, not for the sake of any religion, but in order to use religious zeal in the interests of the oppressive property rights of rackrenting landlords and sweating capitalists. That the Irish people might be kept asunder and robbed whilst so sundered and divided, the Orange aristocracy went down to the lowest depths and out of the lowest pits of hell brought up the abominations of sectarian feuds to stir the passions of the ignorant mob. No crime was too brutal or cowardly; no lie too base; no slander too ghastly, as long as they served to keep the democracy asunder."
That there is a sectarian reaction from some within the "Strand" is deplorable. There is no justification for one section of workers instigating or condoning sectarian attacks on other groups of workers. Any so called Republican group that would condone or turn a blind eye to such attacks betrays the essence of Republicanism. Many decent working class families of all persuasions live in fear of sectarian attacks.That is no way to live one's life. But defence of one's home when under physical attack can not nor ever should be described as sectarianism. Those on the left who do so should hang their heads in shame.
These latest outbursts of sectarian attacks did not arise either unexpectedly. Anti -imperialist republicans and socialists warned from the instigation of the British pacification process, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement that the new constitution arrangements institutionalised sectarianism and would continue the "Carnival of Reaction" wisely predicted by James Connolly when he opposed the partition of Ireland.
Sadly some on the left including the Workers Party and the Socialist Party, who should have known better, joined with Sinn Fein to support the referendum, calling for a yes vote, to establish the new constitutional arrangements. These new arrangements, which in effect was a re-establishment, but on stronger grounds, of the partition of Ireland was welcomed by these parties, a far cry from the James Connolly position,
"Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us."
And was Connolly so right. The broad Labour movement has stood aside from the key issue of Partition since 1918 deciding to accommodate to the prejudices of the workers rather than confront them. In this they have been aped by a reformist left that has persistently and consistently pandered to the interests of Imperialism in Ireland by refusing to distinguish between Imperialism and anti-imperialism.
Labour's failure to even resist partition meant the creation of two sectarian states in Ireland acting in the interests of Imperialism. What has been happening on the streets of the North recently is the direct result of the failure not only of political leaderships within broad unionism but also the failure within nationalism.
That of course is of no surprise to socialists.
Bernadette Aliskey sums it up well when in a recent interview she said,
“You have the leadership of Unionism and Nationalism basically closeted into a sectarian, a management of sectarian divisions, around a peace process - and there's always a management of sectarian interfaces. And at the top benefiting from it. And on both sides you have the people who've gained nothing from the peace:the poor - the working class Loyalist - the poor - the working class Nationalists.
And sooner or later somebody's going to have to realise that it is the ideology of Unionism and Nationalism that is flawed.
Sooner or later we're going to have to have conversations about class interests and imperialism.”
For the sake of the working classes, catholic protestant dissenter north and south for the sake of all the oppressed minorities within the island of Ireland the sooner that 'conversation takes place the better.
It is absurd that in the midst of the greatest crisis of capitalism in 80 years amidst the worst attacks on the living standards of workers in aeons, both the labour movement and the left in general are all over the place. Both the SWP and the SP in the South are walking away from the United Left Alliance. Is that leadership?
This is no time for timidity no time for playing either religious or political sectarianism. It is the time to pull the left together, re-energise the broad labour movement and defeat the forces of sectarianism, and imperialism. Building a mass party of the working class north and south is the way forward.