Resurgent Sectarianism in the North of Ireland

Challenges for a Nascent Left

April 28, 2021

In a development which seems eerily appropriate in this, its centenary year, the Northern Irish state appears to be locked into a trajectory toward sectarian polarisation, renewed street violence, and perhaps worse. Rioting and street unrest has been a common feature of Northern Irish life throughout its troubled history: its very founding a century ago was marked by “five weeks of ruthless persecution by boycott, fire, plunder and assault”1Quoted in G.B.Kenna, Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-22 (O’Connell Publishing, Dublin, 1922), 24. against the state’s nationalist minority, and of course the more recent, decades-long armed conflict was triggered by large-scale communal unrest in the summer of 1969. As the crisis-prone statelet prepares for its centenary year, the menace of sectarian enmity has again raised its ugly head, with an orchestrated return of street-based confrontation at the “interfaces” that demarcate predominantly Catholic and Protestant districts. Reports that the largely loyalist-instigated violence has been the worst since “the start of the Troubles” borders on the hyperbolic, but there can be little doubt that the riots represent a serious if somewhat localised threat to political stability. Certainly they have exposed the weak foundations of the “peace” that has prevailed in a society often lauded by British and American elites as a model for “conflict resolution.” No wonder, then, that a recent poll shows only a minority who believe there is anything worth “celebrating” in its hundred-year milestone.

The immediate backdrop to this resurgent sectarianism is well documented. For several months unionist elites have been ratcheting up tensions in the aftermath of Brexit, claiming with little justification that new custom checks for goods crossing the Irish Sea are a mortal threat to the union with Britain. Having heralded Brexit in bombastic tones of imperial nostalgia—including more than a few Trumpesque nods to the coming revival of long-gone industries that once provided stable employment in Protestant districts—the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was left floundering as their supposed allies in London cut a deal with the EU that offered little either materially or symbolically. Faced with desertion of their own supporters toward the fringe right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the DUP tacked sharply to the right, stoking fear and raising tensions, hosting a formal meeting with loyalist paramilitaries and extending them the “respectable” cover these elements leveraged into orchestrating a series of set-piece riots, for which working-class youth were to provide the cannon fodder.

It must be noted that at least a portion of responsibility for the customs arrangements lies with mainstream unionism itself. For two plus years, the DUP dutifully propped up an embattled Conservative government at Westminster in its farcical negotiations with Brussels, only to be betrayed by these Tory allies, whose dalliance with Ulster unionism was purely pragmatic. In return for DUP support, it should be recalled, the Tories had solemnly declared that no British government could ever countenance custom checks between the UK and Belfast, only to renege on this promise in a mad dash to “get Brexit done.” This was a classic example, if there ever was one, of what Marx characterized as unionism’s “intruding loyalty” into British ruling class affairs: opportunistically courted by Tory elites at times of parliamentary crisis, quickly discarded once their loyalty became an impediment to capitalist interests in London.

The DUP had already been under pressure for its support for a Tory Brexit before Boris Johnson signed on to the final withdrawal agreement. Faced with a choice between a bargain basement Brexit hatched by old Etonians in London or continuing membership of the EU, many liberal protestants (along with the vast majority of nationalists) opted for the latter. The persistent, wilful ignorance of Northern Irish affairs displayed by British politicians bolstered this perception, giving the impression that Brussels was a benign force, committed at the very least to maintaining peace in the face of a blundering British establishment. As Dan Finn reminds us, however, elites in London can’t claim a monopoly on “cloddish insensitivity to Irish concerns.” Within weeks of the post-Brexit arrangements taking full effect, EU officials were threatening to exploit the “special status” of the North in a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the British government over the distribution of Covid vaccines. This flagrant exploitation of the new arrangements gifted the DUP with the political cover to launch a sustained campaign of fear-mongering over the “border at the Irish sea”—conveniently omitting their own role in its creation.

Much of the commentary on the riots, therefore, has taken unionist grievance at face value, with a string of increasingly banal offerings from journalists who explain the violence in the narrow terms of a destabilized “Unionist identity” after Brexit. Two basic facts confront this attempt to absolve unionist elites. Firstly, unionism’s attitude to divergences between London and the North is grossly inconsistent. Consider the position of the DUP toward the urgent question of reproductive rights, for example: access to abortion has been severely restricted in the North compared to Britain for several decades. Not only did the DUP seek to maintain this intra-UK divergence: they energetically opposed efforts to equalise abortion rights across both regions—under the guise, no less, that London had no right to “impose” such a thing on the people of the North. The reaction of the DUP to the extension of equal marriage, it should be remembered too, was predicated on the very same reasoning.

Secondly, the DUP have for more than a decade robustly advocated for a special rate of corporation tax for the North. This would set tax on big business at rates far below those in London, creating a special economic zone in the North and (in theory) making the region a magnet for foreign direct investment. Given their record of insisting on non-alignment, it is impossible to take seriously the DUP’s objection that “British identity” was put under threat by customs checks but not by their regressive approach to reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ equality, or divergence in corporate tax rates. Given the self-serving nature of the DUP’s approach to questions of “identity,” therefore, it is necessary to locate the resurgent sectarianism in something more than a crude identitarian reductionism that absolves the agency of the unionist elites themselves.

Even a cursory glance at the response to processions during the pandemic, however, would suggest that the authorities have gone out of their way to treat loyalism and the Right with kid gloves, and to target instead anti-racist activists and the Left.

Apologists for loyalism have offered up a further justification for the riots: apparent anger at the refusal to prosecute leading members of Sinn Féin for breaches of Covid restrictions during the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey. Even a cursory glance at the response to processions during the pandemic, however, would suggest that the authorities have gone out of their way to treat loyalism and the Right with kid gloves, and to target instead anti-racist activists and the Left. In June of last year, thousands of people joined a socially-distanced rally organised by Unite Against Racism in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The police attempted to block this event, hounding Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) organisers and fining dozens of participants in what the police ombudsman later condemned as an act of discrimination. Weeks later hundreds of loyalists gathered for a “Protect our Statues” mobilization—akin to those organised by the far right in the US—at the Cenotaph in Belfast city centre. Predictably, no fines or prosecutions were issued. The same imbalance was on display in February, when the PSNI intervened heavy-handedly in a memorial service for the victims of loyalist assassination at Sean Graham’s bookmakers in 1992, claiming a breach in Covid regulations. The contrast between this and their hands-off approach weeks later as hundreds of Rangers football supporters celebrated along the Shankill Road is striking.  

A more sophisticated rendering of this argument is that the riots are the result of deteriorating conditions within Protestant working class communities. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth to this. Indeed, it is impossible to understand how scores of young people are willing to risk limb and liberty without placing it within the context of the poverty pervading around them—the plain fact that “on either side of the Lanark Way peace gates,” where much of the worst of the rioting has taken place, “you will find two of the most deprived areas in the whole of Northern Ireland.” While political and economic elites on both sides of the divide travel the world boasting of their accomplishment in forging a “new Northern Ireland,” working class people have seen little of the promised “peace dividend” that was supposed to come in its train. Communities hardest hit by conflict are little better off than they were at the time of the signing of the Good Frida Agreement (GFA). That is not to say that there is no money: vast swathes of state funding has been ploughed into the private sector or squandered on a series of breathtakingly incompetent if not downright corrupt governmental scheme. Public libraries, leisure centres, and vital services for young people have either been closed or outsourced. The state of the health service is so dire that recent reports suggest it could take over a decade to clear waiting lists.

But efforts to locate this within a uniquely Protestant disadvantage—perhaps even resultant from Catholic gain—are far off the mark. By almost all barometers of economic disadvantage, Catholics continue to do as badly, if not in some cases marginally worse, than those on the other side of the sectarian divide (though the real divide is to be found between those at the bottom of society and those at the top). Contrarily, some commentators point to statistics that show a gap in educational attainment between Protestant boys and their Catholic counterparts. Any instance of educational disadvantage, to be sure, is deeply concerning and deserves thorough investigation and urgent redress. But anyone seeking an explanation for this will have to quickly face one salient fact: that educational disadvantage in the North, within both Catholic and Protestant communities, has been greatly reinforced by almost two decades’ worth of political obstruction by unionist parties intent on maintaining the North’s archaic system of academic selection for primary school children. This a system that inherently disadvantages working class kids, including those from a Protestant background. Unionist handwringing over educational disadvantage, therefore, is little more than a conscious effort at deflection. There are echoes of this in Britain, where efforts are being made by the Tories to whitewash institutional racism by pointing to similar patterns of educational attainment between white boys and children from oppressed groups.

Attempts to identify a specific Protestant working class interest, as against the interests of the working class as a whole, are part of a long running effort—particularly in sections of the academy—to rebrand loyalism as a kind of misunderstood Labourism cloaked in a Union Jack. In this line of argument, loyalism is considered to be the innately “working class” expression of Protestantism (as against the more bourgeois “big house” unionists). Though a certain underlying class dynamic is functional in the relationship between loyalism and unionism, the case for the “progressive” nature of former has to ignore the fact that at every major juncture in this last few decades it has come to the rescue of parties like the DUP or attempted to push it to the right. In the two years that the DUP propped up the Tory government—a period where working class communities were devastated by a vicious programme of welfare reform—not a single major loyalist force raised a word of condemnation. In fact during the last Assembly election in 2017, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC)—“an all-male” umbrella organization backed by the UDA, UVF, and Red Hand Commando “which claims to represent working-class unionism”—issued a statement urging loyalists to vote for the DUP, before warning against voting for cross community parties. A similar dynamic has been at work in these riots, with one Shankill community worker claiming the violence “is about the DUP losing votes to Alliance, People Before Profit, the Greens and the SDLP, and not knowing what to do about it.”

The constant elevation of loyalist forces as the indisputable spokespeople for the Protestant working class is part of the problem—ignoring the fact that no one ever elected them to this position, not to mention the controlling role they play through the mechanism of paramilitary intimidation. Far from being the natural heirs to a Protestant working class identity, the loyalist gangs suffocate the very communities they claim to speak for. This creates an atmosphere in some of the hardest-pressed Protestant working class communities where criticizing the paramilitaries can be extremely risky for anyone willing to put their heads above the parapet. But there have been signs that the hold of the loyalists groups over these areas is weakening. In the aftermath of a paramilitary murder in East Belfast in 2019, for example, a group of women decided enough was enough. “Inspired by the recent International Women’s Day,” local women led a march of hundreds of people through their community against paramilitary intimidation. “It is one of the best places to live,” said one of the organizers. “I always used to be proud of East Belfast and used to feel very safe in the community and now it is completely and utterly changed.” Referring to the influence of paramilitaries in the area, she said: “You are always looking over your shoulder, you are scared to speak out to the wrong person in case you are threatened. I want all that to stop.”

A bomb attack (likely by the New IRA) on a PSNI officer as this article goes to print will do nothing to further the cause of a united Ireland, and can only enhance the appeal of the loyalist gangs within “their” areas, reinforcing for Protestants the notion that the only choice available to them is between the devil they don’t know—republican militarists—and the loyalist devils they know all too well.

The tragedy of the above episode is that courageous initiatives like this have not been matched by the potentially much more powerful forces of the labour movement, who have been conspicuously silent during the recent riots. Historically, the trade union bureaucracy in the North as held to a feeble, even apologetic stance in the face of loyalist reaction. It does not help matters that small sections of “dissident” Irish republicanism—by all accounts riven with state informers—harbours fantasies of a return to armed struggle. A bomb attack (likely by the New IRA) on a PSNI officer as this article goes to print will do nothing to further the cause of a united Ireland, and can only enhance the appeal of the loyalist gangs within “their” areas, reinforcing for Protestants the notion that the only choice available to them is between the devil they don’t know—republican militarists—and the loyalist devils they know all too well.

The heavy burden for providing a principled, class-based alternative in this precarious situation falls on the shoulders of the North’s nascent radical left. By far the most promising development on the left and the only one with any kind of realistic viability has been the modest but important growth of People Before Profit (PBP), a radical socialist party built on the tradition of James Connolly, with 5 elected councillors across the North, one member of the regional Assembly, and a tentative base inside some of the region’s most impoverished working class districts. The party is overwhelming young, with a record of sustained campaigning on class politics and the fight against oppression, and a proven capability to bring people together across the divide. Two years ago it managed to organize a joint Shankill/Falls march of public health centre workers facing redundancies—at the very interface where the worst of the violence is now taking place. More recently it organised an impressive anti-sectarian rally involving community workers from both sides of the divide, trade unionists, figures from the migrant communities and prominent sports and television personalities.

If this precious development is to weather the current storm, then it will have to grasp three key challenges. Firstly, the sectarian violence seen in recent weeks is deeply concerning, and needs to be met with a robust response. But it is also a sign of the deep malaise in politics: socialists must grasp the possibility of redirecting the anger seen in recent weeks into mobilizations that point the finger at the top rather than across the interfaces. Loyalists are driving the recent violence, but the disaffection they are attempting to tap into is real, and rooted in the deep poverty that continues to hit those areas that suffered the most during the Troubles. Secondly, in striving for this unity, socialists must be alert to every opportunity, small and large, to win workers on all sides to principled anti-sectarian politics. The left must reject the allure of liberal respectability, which understands sectarianism as simply the vestige of backward ideas rather than rooted in ongoing inequalities.

Lastly, the violence we have seen in recent weeks, on the eve of the centenary of the northern state, is a reminder that the institutionalized system of sectarianism will forever cause communal animosity to trickle downwards. If the next hundred years is going to see a decisive break with endemic sectarianism, then it will be necessary to build beyond the two failed states on this island, and to answer the question posed by the United Irishmen centuries ago: “Are we forever to walk like beasts of prey over the fields which [our] ancestors stained with blood?”2Circular Letter from the Dubin Society of United Irishman (30 Dec 1971). In the face of loyalism’s drift into the violence of the past, and of a refurbished Irish nationalism that can see no future beyond the confines of a tax haven Ireland, the radical left must strike out boldly on a new course: winning working people on both sides of the interface, and on both sides of the border left by partition, to a vision of a socialist Ireland that can put an end to the miserable legacies of imperialism and exploitation for good.

[1] Quoted in G.B.Kenna, Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-22 (O’Connell Publishing, Dublin, 1922), 24.
[2] Circular Letter from the Dubin Society of United Irishman (30 Dec 1971).
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