The dangers of Loyalism
Belfast has once again been in the news for protests and violence. The current flag protests seem to have largely been met with bafflement on the mainland and contempt within Belfast. There has been some focus in the news on how the Unionist community sees the flag as a cultural symbol; however, these protests are not just over a flag, but reflect a wider problem in Northern Irish society.
In December, the vote was held at Belfast City Hall to decide if the Union Jack should only be flown on certain allocated days. Before this vote a number of leaflets were distributed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), suggesting that the Alliance party was engaged with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein to make a “Cold House for Unionists”. The leaflets encouraged people to “let them know we don’t want our national flag torn down from city hall”. The truth is that this was not grassroots organisation against the removal of the flag. Instead it was part of a mobilisation by the Unionist parties, which has historically occurred when they feel their power has been undermined. Whereas previously they would have been undermined by the lack of support from the British government, now the problem is coming from their electorate. The Unionist parties are losing control of East Belfast – where most of the rioting has occurred – and of the city council, as shown by the ability of a majority motion to remove the Union Jack from the city hall.
The Unionist parties’ sole interest is maintaining their grip on power, which was established before partition by landowners, industrial and professionals. In the last decade they have been involved in a number of corruption scandals, having been providing building contracts to colleagues, relatives or for bribes. The scandals damaged the party enough for the DUP to lose their MP for East Belfast, who was then replaced by the Alliance Party candidate. Alliance wants to create compromises and encourage integration of communities. Although they are largely based in protestant areas, they also helped the Chinese community gain their first representative in Stormont. The DUP and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) are conservative parties, their interest firmly based in business, small or large. They show little interest in grassroots causes. For instance, an opposition to the introduction of rates was vastly supported by Sinn Fein, with a NO PAY campaign, while there was no Unionist organisation which prominently supported this campaign. On the other hand, the DUP have prominently supported a reduction in corporation tax to make Northern Ireland more ‘competitive’.
As Eammon McCann put it in his article in the Belfast Telegraph, there is no real difference between the Republican and Unionist working class communities; any policy which would benefit one would benefit the other. Both communities live in areas of high deprivation. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Belfast has one of the highest Jobseeker’s Allowance claimant counts in the UK, and historically it has been generally high. Unionists were primarily employed in the shipyard and factories, industries which have closed or dramatically reduced the number people they employ. It was partly through these industries that the Unionist parties exerted influence over their working class supporters. Just like the rest of the UK, these industries have been replaced with service sector jobs. Just like the rest of the UK, the people in these areas are suffering further from the changes in the benefits systems and cuts to public services. This may have a more significant effect in Northern Ireland, where food prices are more inflated than the rest of the UK and relative poverty was already widespread.
The response to the riots has generally been poor. The classic response to any form of sectarianism is to form an apolitical response against violence and social disorder in general, while talking about the economic benefits peace can bring to Northern Ireland. While this response was successful in bringing about the end of the Troubles, the more recent violence is not the same; there have been no shootings or attacks on rival communities. The young people taking part in the protests are disenfranchised, as highlighted during the largely peaceful protest in the Shankill. It has been suggested that, instead of being a protest solely against the removal of a cultural icon, this is a protest against the under-representation of these areas by their MLAs (Member of Local Assembly), which have failed to deliver on promises to improve conditions (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziO9cSfjmcw).
There has been talk in the media of the influence of paramilitary leaders in the promotion of the riots as opposed to peaceful protest. The protests are more exclusively seen in East Belfast due to differences between the leaders within the East with their counterparts in other areas of Belfast and Northern Ireland. Today paramilitaries do not wish to see a return to an era of revenge killings, they realise that this violence is not beneficial to their communities, and many do realise the manipulation of the sectarian divides by those in power.
We have to ask how paramilitary groups are able to maintain their influence with today’s ‘peace generation’. It reflects the failure of wider society to look at the divide, as well as ignoring the precarious situation of the young working class. The bourgeois may decry it, but the divide is reinforced by the failure to talk about the politics and what may link the two communities; this is no more poignantly seen in Belfast with the laughably named “peace wall” still standing between the Falls and Shankill areas. While some of this is going on behind the scenes slowly between Republican and Unionist paramilitary organisations 1, it is not being talked about in mainstream politics, which was seen in the fairly awful discussion on the Stephan Nolan Show about the flag protests. On the show were the MLAs Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein and Jeffery Donaldson of the DUP, both presented highly partisan arguments and presented themselves as on highly opposing sides rather than part of the so-called power sharing government.
The way in which power sharing has developed into this non-political force, except on partisan issues, is a wider problem in Northern Ireland, with Republic/Unionist issues taking up huge amounts of time while issues that affect a number of people in both communities are generally passed through easily. Any cross-party support has largely been for policies encouraging business, e.g. lowering their taxes, encouraging entrepreneurs or promoting the Northern Irish economy.
Increasing discourse on the failure of the DUP and UUP to represent their constituencies may provide some benefit for the loyalist working class; however, there is no doubt that while partisan politics continues at the grassroots and there is no joint effort between republicans and loyalists to improve their conditions, the ruling classes will continue to take advantage of sectarianism to promote their own interests. This problem lies on both sides and needs to be tackled if the manipulation of the young working class is to stop.
- For a more in depth argument for the use of loyalist paramilitaries in providing peace to Northern Ireland rather than being a largely regressive force refer to “A prosperity of Thought in an Age of Austerity: The Case of Ulster” by Peter Shirlow. ↩