January 2013        

Marching into a cul-de-sac

The continuing protests by loyalists in Belfast and a few other areas of the North are a fall-out from the decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the British flag from City Hall to fifteen times per year. The spokespersons for the protest have been calling for the flag to go back up, and for a return to direct rule from London.
     The protest almost destroyed the Christmas trade and may even have resulted in the closure of some small businesses, with a consequent loss of jobs.
     Before the vote was taken the DUP had been distributing leaflets around Protestant working-class districts, raising the temperature about the flag. They have their eyes set on dislodging the Alliance Party MP Naomi Long, who won the seat in the British House of Commons for that area. The DUP are hoping to undermine her and win the seat back.
     Other factors at work in these areas include the role played in the past by some of today’s leading loyalists as hired guns for the British state and its military intelligence. They are concerned with the Historic Truth investigations in past suspicious killings carried out by loyalists with clear collaboration with the state’s repressive forces.
     They are using the deep alienation felt in these and other working-class communities throughout the North against the savage cuts in services and state investment. Former paramilitaries, now “community workers,” are also using it in the hope that money will flow into the projects they run and control.
     While this is happening, the physical-force tradition within the nationalist community is also attempting to up the ante and to capitalise on the alienation felt by people in that community because of what they see as the failure to come up with the “peace dividend.”
     They still labour under the illusion that Britain gives a damn about the North of Ireland and what happens there. Their actions against prison warders and others will have no effect on the British but have a very immediate impact on the Protestant community, fuelling the fires of sectarianism.
     The British simply don’t care: such actions have no effect on their political, economic or strategic interests; but if the reactions come from within the shared space in the North then we have to ask what is the point of it all.
     The Belfast Agreement was for a number of things:
• guaranteeing the Union, which all unionists appear to believe is in question, while a small section of nationalists believe instead that it has consolidated it—they can’t both be right;
• creating a “shared space” and power-sharing political arrangements—but it has turned out that the DUP and Sinn Féin divvy up the spoils handed over by London to their respective electorates;
• creating the political conditions in which disagreements could be resolved without resort to violence—but they appear to have no strategy for moving beyond the status quo.
     As the CPI has pointed out many times, what is needed is a political strategy that can embrace a number of clear goals that can transcend the present agreements: to advance the democratic goal of national unity, break down sectarianism, and engage with the Protestant working class and demonstrate that their social and economic conditions can be secured only when political power rests at the nearest point of democratic accountability.
     The people of the North of Ireland are triply marginalised: they have no influence to change their social conditions in London; they have no influence in the EU; and they have as much influence in Dublin as the rest of us.
     What loyalists and physical-force republicans have in common is that they have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing but instead are determined to walk into the future backwards.

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