Thursday, April 15, 2021

Northern Ireland’s fragile peace

By Harry Hutchinson, member of the Labour Party Northern Ireland.

A week of violence, on a scale not seen for many years, has escalated tensions in Northern Ireland. Loyalist youth, some as young as 12 years old, have attacked police, journalists, public transport and Catholic areas, at those places where the two communities interface. In one case, they breached the so called ‘peace wall’ between the protestant Shankill and the Catholic Springfield areas of Belfast.

A few nights ago, a bus was hi-jacked, its passengers terrorised, and the driver assaulted, before it was set on fire by gangs of youths. Now, for the first time in decades, water cannon has been deployed against rioters, although notably not against the Loyalist youth who have rioted for the best part of a week, but against Catholic youth rioting on the other side of the ‘wall’.

Tensions have been brewing for months because of trade restrictions on goods coming from Britain to Norther Ireland, as a result of the protocols agreed between the UK and the EU over Brexit. These trade regulations are seen by loyalists as effectively a trade ‘border’ down the Irish Sea (as indeed it is) and that is something they have long opposed. To them, it is a further step in the separation of Northern Ireland from Britain.

Sinn Fein members at funeral

Added to issue of the Protocols, which have been rumbling on for weeks, there has also been the issue of the Sinn Fein members who joined hundreds of mourners at the mass funeral for a prominent former IRA member, Bobby Story. The funeral was held without any adherence to Covid regulations, but it seems that no legal action is planned against the Sinn Fein members who participated, allowing DUP politicians whisper ‘favouritism’ into the ears of loyalist youth.

Most of the violence is being coordinated though social media and it is expected to continue throughout the coming weekend, including a Loyalist protest at Belfast City Hall. The loyalist paramilitary umbrella group, the Loyalist Community Council (LCC), set up in 2015 and consisting of the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commandos, have already declared that they no longer feel bound by the Good Friday Agreement. As yet, they have not responded publicly to the violence, leading many to believe they are orchestrating it. On the other hand, it is possible these loyalist groups have, to some extent, lost control over the youth.

The parties at Stormont all claim to be powerless to quell the violence and can only call for the end to street unrest. But some of them are playing a double game. The DUP have never supported the Good Friday Agreement and they have ongoing contacts with the loyalist paramilitaries. DUP Assembly members and leading figures have been making incendiary speeches against the Brexit protocols in the period leading up to the riots – and more recently about the Sinn Fein funeral – and they bear a direct responsibility for the increased sectarian tension.

A new generation of youth

Since the Good Friday Agreement, which was supposed to bring in a new era of peace in the North of Ireland, the two main sectarian capitalist parties have only deepened the sectarian divisions between the two working-class poverty-ridden areas. The new generation of youth who have witnessed division, poverty, drugs and an utter failure of politicians to deal with these issues.

Unfortunately, these youth are being weaned, like their grandparents fifty years ago, on the poison of sectarianism, and some of them have now taken matters into their own hands and that might bring a summer of violence to Northern Ireland.

The Protestant youth, as it was in the past, rather than fighting for real and meaningful social change, are being urged to fight against the ‘creeping unification’ of Ireland and a perceived ‘bias’ in favour of Sinn Fein. The Catholic youth are likewise urged to support a border poll to unify Ireland, as the answer to their problems.

Sinn Fein are now actively supporting the idea of a border poll. Without in any way addressing the questions of low pay, housing, poverty, unemployment and other social questions, a border poll for the unification of Ireland, presented as a purely ‘constitutional’ issue, is a dangerous and divisive policy that threatens to multiply sectarianism ten- or twenty-fold. It is an irresponsible policy.

It doesn’t matter that a majority of Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, or that opinion polls point to a majority for Irish unification. The fact of the matter is that a significant – and armed – minority will oppose this if it is a sectarian question, as it is now being presented.

The key question facing socialists in Northern Ireland today

The key question that faces socialists in Northern Ireland today is essentially as it has been for the last half century – the unification of workers around a programme of fundamental social change to address the day-to-day problems that all workers face, on both sides of the sectarian divide.

The youth in the Protestant and Catholic areas should direct their protests, not though mindless violence, but against a Stormont system that has utterly failed them. They should direct their protests against the ruthless paramilitaries who, despite the Good Friday Agreement, still control their lives in drug racketeering and crime.

Nationalist and Unionist politicians and the police all work behind the scenes with these paramilitary organisations, to manage and control community unrest. Keeping communities divided on the constitutional issue of ‘Nationalist’ versus ‘Unionist’ is a part of this control.

Unlike the sectarian politicians, the Labour and Trade Union movement can play a leading role in uniting communities. The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish TUC has issued a statement in support of transport workers who are boycotting areas of Belfast.

Translink bus-drivers protest against attack

The trade union movement,” the statement says, “entirely supports this protest by our public transport workers. Theirs is an act of generosity towards their fellow bus driver who was shockingly attacked last evening…Workers across Northern Ireland will not accept being the subject of attacks when going about their duties. The Translink workers are standing up and proclaiming this loudly”.

This is all well and good, but the NIC should not limit itself to calls for ‘peace’ and ‘restraint’. It has to come out openly making political demands of the politicians. “Politicians”, they say, “need to come together, work together and make politics work in the interest of the entire community”.

That may be the case, but the NIC itself should now be demanding political and economic measures that would meaningfully address the problems of working-class people. The answer to the growing threat of sectarian violence is not appeals to restraint. It is for the labour and trade union movement to point the working class in an entirely different political direction, based on the common interests of all workers.

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