From Socialist Voice, December 2006

Inching forward

Political progress in the North is inching forward. No matter how slow, movement is forward, and that is the positive element.
    The DUP, which has now assumed the leadership of unionism in the North, is now finding that situation very difficult to cope with. Paisley has achieved what he has desired for fifty years or more. He has presented himself and built his power base as the strong man of unionism, the man who said “no” more times than anyone else, and meant it. He personified the “no surrender” bunker mentality of sections of loyalism and unionism.
    It is clear that the DUP is now in some difficulty, with splits and divisions appearing as it attempts to come to terms with the new reality and the shifting power relations on this island. Unionism has been unable to hold its position, from majority rule to power-sharing with the SDLP, and now it has little or no option but to share government with Sinn Féin. This is a reflection of unionism’s weakness.
    Both Sinn Féin and the DUP will no doubt bring it all down to the wire in the period leading up to the Assembly elections in March, with both parties appearing to be holding out and having put up a good fight but bowing to the inevitable. That’s politics.
    There are problems within both parties on aspects of the St Andrews Agreement, which of itself is natural, given the historical evolution and traditions that they represent. Those with the biggest difficulty in coping are unionists, and history has shown that they have great problems coping with change. From the early civil rights demands right up to the current process, unionism—or at least significant sections of it—have opposed change, always believing that even an inch away from the “union” was an inch towards a united Ireland.
    It was a tradition where open political debate was aggressively discouraged, allowing unionism to maintain complete control. This hegemonic control allowed the big industrialists, landlords and other powerful economic forces to maintain their grip, in their own interests and that of British imperialism. Sectarianism and discrimination were not solely about keeping the “Fenians” down but, even more so, were about keeping Protestants under unionism’s political control, influence, and domination. For getting a job or a house, unionism had constructed a network and methods of control that all Protestants—the farm labourer, council worker, shipyard or engineering worker—had to conform to. It was an all-class alliance, supposedly to defend Protestantism and its link with its spiritual, cultural and economic home: London.
    Many vehicles and institutions were created to keep Protestants disciplined and controlled. The Orange Order was one of the primary vehicles for ensuring this. The constant reinforcing of the imagery with 12th of July bonfires and the burning of “Lundy” was to send the message, loud and clear: you are either with us or you are against us. Isolation would be the result if you stepped out of line.
    This constant pressure ensured that housing or work would be difficult to get if you broke with this method of social and political control; and it was backed up by paramilitary structures, such as the RUC and B Specials. These were the public face of what would happen to you if you dissented, while paramilitary forces such as the UVF lurked in the undergrowth to reinforce compliance.
    It is under these cultural constraints that Paisley and the DUP are attempting to come to terms with and reconcile themselves to the fact that the British were never in the least interested in them and would discard them when it suited their economic, political and military objectives.
    It is clear that within unionism and loyalism there is a deep sense of betrayal. Unionism demonised the Catholic and nationalist minority as the enemy of both Protestantism and the union. If a fair deal was cut with the minority it would affect the perceived advantages of toeing the line.
    This culture of constant pressure to conform and “not an inch” will take time to break down. One of the few forums that provided a vehicle for Protestants to break from this stifling of dissent was the trade union movement. Trade unions always bore the brunt of unionist attacks, but despite this we still have a united trade union body for all workers on the island of Ireland, re-established in 1959. The unions created a space for self-organisation not directly under unionist control. The power of organised workers was shown in the 1907 Belfast lock-out and the united unemployed struggles in the 1930s.
    It was within trade unions that many radical and dissenting Protestants found a voice and expression of their opposition. Activists from the Protestant tradition, such as the communists Andy Barr, Jimmy Graham, and Betty Sinclair, among many others, played a vital role in reuniting the Irish trade unions. Andy Barr also succeeded in getting the Sheet Metal Workers’ Trade Union to affiliate to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
    The recent IRA military campaign effectually reinforced the siege mentality and made dissenting voices very difficult to hear. It also allowed unionism the opportunity to sit tight and not have to move, as conditions of violence in some ways created stability for unionism; it did not have to talk or compromise.
    The IRA ceasefire and the Belfast Agreement once again unlocked the weaknesses and the contradictions within unionism and exposed its great difficulty in coping with change, as did the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and 70s, without the ensuing deepening of existing sectarian divisions that resulted from the military campaign.
    If the process is slow it is understandable, as it creates a space for the Protestant people to come to terms with those changes. The actions of Michael Stone are a reflection of the deep frustrations and confusion within unionism and loyalism and their inability to stop change.
    Unionism will continue to fracture, both publicly and privately, even if it appears united under Paisley’s leadership. Political struggle will continue to fracture and undermine unionism, one of the Trojan horses of imperialism in Ireland. That is why it is important that political struggle is aimed at further undermining unionism. This can only weaken imperialist influence over all.

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