Riots expose reality of sectarianism

Fierce rioting erupted in Ardoyne after an Orange Order parade on 12 July and continued for three days. The period before, over and after this year’s Twelfth was also marked by rioting in other areas and a number of gun and bomb attacks. There was trouble across Belfast – including the New Lodge, Broadway, the Markets, Short Strand, Ormeau Road-and in Derry, Armagh, and Lurgan.

Fierce rioting erupted in Ardoyne after an Orange Order parade on 12 July and continued for three days. The period before, over and after this year’s Twelfth was also marked by rioting in other areas and a number of gun and bomb attacks. There was trouble across Belfast – including the New Lodge, Broadway, the Markets, Short Strand, Ormeau Road-and in Derry, Armagh, and Lurgan. Three PSNI officers were shot in the New Lodge and shots were also fired at the PSNI in Ardoyne and in the Bogside area of Derry. A landmine exploded in South Armagh and there were a number of blast bomb attacks. In total, 88 PSNI members were injured. The PSNI used potentially lethal baton rounds on a number of occasions but fortunately no-one was killed. The police claimed that the trouble in Derry was the worst in a decade.

For a few days, the atmosphere in Northern Ireland was thrown back to a darker, more violent past. In the days after the Twelfth, mainstream politicians and the media conducted a post-mortem on the events in very strident and inaccurate terms. Rioting on this scale is not part of the script of the “peace process” and has to be explained away. It is important that socialists do not exaggerate recent events but soberly estimate where we are at this time.

What lies behind the riots?

Various assertations have been made about the Ardoyne riots. For example, much has been made of the young age of some of the rioters and the fact that text messaging and social networking sites like Facebook were used to mobilise young people to Ardoyne and other areas. It was further argued that the riots were “recreational”, not “political” and that most trouble was caused by “anti-social elements” who would be causing havoc in the areas in any case.

While some of the rioters on this occasion were very young, the majority were clearly in their late teens and early twenties. Throughout the Troubles, riots were always dominated by the young, often the very young. One of the iconic images of the Troubles is a photograph of a young boy during the Battle of the Bogside wearing a gas mask, clutching a petrol bomb and wearing a badge showing a map of Ireland. When Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness cut their teeth on the streets in the early 1970s, they were in their early twenties and those under their command were often teenagers. Now Sinn Fein joins in the near-hysterical calls for social services to intervene – presumably to remove children from their families if they become involved in street confrontations – and suggests that “anti-social elements” be put out of areas where they are “not welcome”.

The use of modern technology to bring rioters to the frontline should come as no surprise to anyone given the way such technology has invaded all areas of life. The idea that the rioting is “recreational” does have an element of truth to it – alienated young people in this environment can be drawn towards scenes of conflict. There is also some truth in the assertion that the rioting was in the main carried out by “anti-social elements”. The most down-trodden in society, with least to lose, will often be in the front line when trouble explodes.

Dissidents stoke flames

There is a great deal of truth in the claim the rioters were organised and encouraged by various dissident groups. It is absolutely clear that the dissidents of various hues are seeking to increase tension and conflict around contentious Orange marches. The Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective was established in an attempt to outflank the Sinn Fein dominated Crumlin Road and Ardoyne Residents Association and has been partially successful in this. The dissidents are establishing a growing presence on the ground in some areas that were previously dominated by the Provisionals. In Ardoyne, the Provos were able to intervene to defuse the situation after several days but on the Twelfth, there was little they could do. Nonetheless, it was significant that several hundred local residents turned out to protest against those rioting which included many who did not live in the area themselves.

The dissidents are also slowly increasing the intensity of their armed campaigns.

Since the beginning of this year, they have carried out a gun attack or bombing every two days on average. This is no comparison to the latter days of the IRA campaign, let alone the height of the Troubles but it does represent a steady ratcheting up of their activities. The dissident groups remain small, are divided into half a dozen competing groups and have limited support but they are making an impact. Sinn Fein claim that the dissidents have no strategy and show no way forward. The latter is certainly the case – they point only in the direction of bitter sectarian conflict – but they do have a strategy – it is to destabilise the North. The problem for Sinn Fein is that it cannot provide a way forward either. Sinn Fein has no strategy beyond a sectarian war of attrition, currently largely confined to the debating chamber and the media. Nowhere is this more obvious than in areas such as Ardoyne. The dissidents are able to capitalise on this and are appealing to increasing layers of the young.

Sinn Fein makes much of the contrast between the activities of the “micro-groups” and the IRA in the past. The IRA in the early 1970s certainly had much more support but was only ever supported by a minority of the working class. The methods of the IRA could never hope to achieve its stated aims. These methods have now been adopted on a much smaller scale by the dissidents – equally doomed to fail.

The strategy of the youthful leaders of the Provisional IRA in the period 1970-1972 was to stage set piece battles between rioters and the army, often deliberately stoking conflict around Orange marches. These confrontations blooded a section of Catholic youth and provided recruits for the IRA’s war. The dissidents hope for the same “success”.

In the early 1970s, brutal repressive actions of the state such as the Falls Curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. Consequently, it is extremely unlikely the state will repeat such brutal measures in the current period.

Despite building support amongst some youth, most young Catholics do not see the dissidents as providing any credible alternative. It is not likely the dissidents will grow sharply in the short term, but given the constant potential for sectarian conflict, the worsening social and economic conditions, the potential for loyalist reaction and the lack of a mass socialist alternative, it cannot be entirely ruled out.

Negotiations are necessary

The rioting was indefensible and only leads to further misery and increased sectarian tension. It impacted most on local communities. The dissidents are playing a thoroughly reactionary role and are seeking to pull the North back to worse conflict and despair. Their role in orchestrating riots has led to increased sectarian attacks in local communities.

What few wish to acknowledge however is that mass unemployment and social conditions which exist in many areas create deep discontent and alienation amongst many young people. In working class areas such as Ardoyne, the idea of a peace dividend is a sick joke. There are no new jobs and social conditions have not improved in the decade and a half since the 1994 ceasefires. The axe now being swung by the Cameron government and the local Executive will cause further misery.

There has been a clear increase in sectarian tension for some time. In the weeks and months running up to the summer, there was sporadic trouble at sectarian interfaces all over Belfast and Derry. Much of this goes unreported or only reported in the local newspapers.

The Ardoyne shops are now a key flash point as the Lower Ormeau Road and the Garvaghy Road once were. The Socialist Party has long argued that competing rights are at stake in the conflict over parades. Despite being a right-wing, sectarian organisation, the Orange Order has the right to parade. The residents of local areas have the right to object to parades through their areas with all the accompanying coat-trailing and intimidation. But, most importantly, the working class as a whole has the right to avoid being dragged into serious sectarian conflict over the issue of contentious parades.

Competing rights

A stark assertion from the Orange Order that it can simply march where it chooses is not part of the solution. Nor is a refusal to talk to residents. However, it is not as simple as saying that the solution is no marches past the Ardoyne shops as Jim Gibney, an Irish News columnist who can be considered to represent the views of Sinn Fein, stated baldly after the Twelfth. The contentious parade does not pass through the heart of Ardoyne but skirts it. It takes place along a main arterial route. Local Protestants use the route every day to go to work or school.

Any agreement must involve stewarding organised by the marchers and local residents themselves, and accordingly no police presence in the area. To avoid conflict, ways have to be found to isolate those who wish to use the parades issue to stoke up sectarian conflict. This cannot be done by Sinn Fein who are carrying out cuts impacting working class communities. They can be isolated if an alternative is found to organise working class youth from both communities to fight for decent jobs and education.

Agreement must be reached around the frequency and conduct of parades, including who takes part in and accompanies parades. Local residents groups must enter negotiations on the basis that there is a possibility that parades can take place – there must be something to negotiate.

Any solution must take into account the right of the people of Ardoyne to live in peace from sectarian harassment both on the Twelfth and all year round. There are also sectarian attacks coming from Ardoyne directed against nearby Protestant homes and these too must be dealt with in any negotiations. The social conditions which cause alienation and provide the conditions for conflict must be highlighted and addressed.

Ignoring the issue of sectarianism, or wishing it away, is not an option. Unexpected issues can come up at any time. On 16 July, daily protests of over 100 began outside the Asda supermarket on the Shore Road in Belfast after an employee was sacked. He was wrongly sacked from his job after allegedly making a quip asking a van driver to play “The Sash” in the car park. The remark was overheard by a customer who complained to management. He was re-instated after four days of picketing and then it emerged that he was convicted of the sectarian murder of two Catholic brothers in the nearby Mount Vernon flats in the 1970s. Such an incident is atypical but also typical – it seemed to come from nowhere, it quickly inflames passions on both sides of the sectarian divide, and it has the potential to spiral out of control for a period.

Twenty years of interminable talks and endless “agreements” have not produced peace, stability or prosperity. The entire peace process has been about cementing division and carving up power, not sharing power. The parties on each side of the sectarian divide thrive on sectarian division and maintain sectarian division. To break the sectarian log jam, we need a new politics based on the working class and the fight for socialism.

Working class people have more in common than divides them. They unite in their trade unions to defend their jobs and services and across the peace lines in opposition to water charges. Action on economic and social issues alone is not enough however. United working class action is ultimately required to fight sectarianism in all its manifestations and to combat sectarian attacks and the working class and young people need an independent mass party which seeks to build unity across the communities.

Working class needs its own party

Working class people in Northern Ireland face a future of sectarian conflict, unemployment and poverty. The North has now been in recession since November 2007, almost three years. The anaemic economic upturn in Britain has entirely passed us by.

Officially, unemployment in Northern Ireland rose to 56,100 in June, an increase of 600 on the previous month, and of 6,700 on a year ago. The rate of “economic inactivity” (the real measure of unemployment) is higher than in England, Scotland or Wales. The projected £1.5 billion of public expenditure cuts planned for the next four years will put thousands more on the dole. It is predicted that 14,000 more jobs will go in the next two years, meaning that unemployment will treble over the five years between 2007 and 2012. The unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds is already 17.4%.

None of the Assembly parties represent the interests of working class people. At times, these parties voice their opposition to public spending cuts – but this is nothing more than a cheap confidence trick. The sectarian parties consistently unite in the Assembly by supporting a programme of draconian cuts. This is one area they all agree on – that the working class must pay for the economic crisis.

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No end in sight to conflict over parades

Fierce rioting took place in several areas of Belfast and Newtownabbey over the 12th weekend. The rioting began when the PSNI enforced a Parades Commission ruling that an Orange Order parade should not be allowed to pass the Ardoyne shops on its return from the main 12th demonstration.