January 2014        

A politics beyond anti-sectarianism

One has the feeling that the visit to Belfast of the American mediator Richard Haass as an “honest broker” on the divisive issues of flags, parades and the past is going to be a recurring event. While there may be minimal changes and a lessening of tensions, there can be no fundamental rupture. This is because the issues at stake are symptoms of an undemocratic sectarian statelet. This itself has to be changed.

The legacy of history

Northern Ireland is a deeply divided sub-state of the British Crown. It is an artificial structure, brought into existence to defy the majority wishes of the Irish people for self-determination. It was therefore a political decision to set it up.
      From colonial days Ireland was always governed as one unit. With the rise of the movement for self-determination the country was partitioned by the British parliament in 1921. The area of the six counties excluded from the Irish state contained a slight majority of Protestants, in the main the descendants of the planters and settlers who replaced the dispossessed native Irish of their lands. In time the new arrivals, never homogeneous in status, rank, or class, became a part of the Irish nation.
      That this minority maintained many characteristics of identify, religion, culture and social standing distinct from the indigenous people is nothing new in the formation of nations. What was different in the case of Ireland was that the British ruling class prevented a normal evolution of that process by treating the new minority as a garrison class. But even so success was not guaranteed, for, as with the American Revolution, the colonisers became republicans, in the form of the United Irish movement.
      Their class interest, representing nascent capitalism, collided with the parasitic demands of London and the local plutocracy. Moreover, their determination was reinforced from suffering abuse and persecution for their minority religious beliefs from the twin orthodoxy of the Crown and the established church. They saw their future residing in a democratic and independent society, in solidarity with the impoverished Catholic masses.
      They paid the price for their rebelliousness, and the Crown, as usual, took measures to ensure that permanent repression would make the “Croppies” lie down and, more subtly, that unionist hegemony would hold sway as an all-class alliance, through the agency of the Orange Order. But republicanism had been born and has grown beyond a Catholic national identity to one of democracy, secularism, and class-consciousness.
      Is this historical review too simplistic and too reductionistic? There is no doubt that what we have ended up with is a contested statelet, crippled by division more identifiable by religion than by class. Politically, the chasm is between unionism and nationalism or republicanism, with little ground for left and right polarisation.
      In a divided society, particular among the working class, the divisions are starkly reflected in separate education, segregated housing, and unequal employment prospects. Since the Belfast Agreement and the demolition of the worst aspects of the Orange statelet there has been progress in rectifying most of its more squalid features and some progress towards equality. All this takes place in the jungle of capitalist “normality,” where working people, the unemployed, youth and women suffer disproportionately from the appropriation of wealth.

Loyal to empire

Sectarianism is not the cause of conflicts in the North: it is only the symptom of a deeper division. That deeper division is the continuation of Orangeism, which believes in the Empire, their role in maintaining the grand order of things, and that Catholic should still know their place. Slippage on any of these could pave the way for a united Ireland; so “Britishness” has to be proclaimed with flags and provocative marches. That its most vocal and violent outpouring comes from the most deprived working-class areas disappoints and confuses many on the left, particular those seeking practical solutions.
      The trade union movement is often expected to have the ability to transform the dynamics of this division, but, given its composition, the best it can be is a bridge to class and social co-operation. It played a vital role in keeping sectarianism out of the work-places and elevating the commonality of class interests.
      This in itself has been a remarkable achievement in our time; but its political force is limited. Social democracy will always avoid tough, principled decision-making and will seek consensus politics: hence the failure historically to even sustain a secular Labour Party.

Building a better future

But what is the challenge for the left? The first thing we have to recognise is that the most reactionary force on this island, through its ideology and practice, is Orangeism. While its pivotal organisational role has lessened, its ideas permeate the DUP, unionist parties, and the loyalist paramilitaries. Each plays off the other but is an accomplice in the overall scheme whereby the statelet is dominated by the interests of big business, acting through the agencies of London, the United States, and the European Union.
      The hegemony of unionism can only be muted by the politicisation of sections of the working people and some middle-class elements on issues of class and democratic values. It is no easy task, and no magic wand is going to re-create the heroic unemployed riots and marches of the 1930s.
      While seeking to isolate and neutralise the bigots and mob-rousers, the left must also be mindful of the historical traditions within Protestantism, flowing from the progressive features of the Reformation and the Dissenter tradition, and help them to resonate again. This is more difficult today when the deindustrialisation of shipbuilding and heavy engineering has destroyed the legacy of a skilled, intelligent, militant proletariat. This feeds the real alienation that encourages hopelessness among loyalists and traps organisations such as the PUP into ineffectiveness.
      The continued cultivation of religious sectarianism is a blight on Northern society and has no other purpose than to divide the working class and prolong the union with Britain. It is the main mean for corralling the Protestant section of the working class into a narrow understanding of where their interests lie and for preventing any form of debate within that community about alternative ways forward.
      Sectarianism is not solely directed against their Catholic neighbours but is also for control of the Protestant working class itself. It leads the Protestant section of our class into isolation and marginalisation from influencing the wider working-class debate and struggles.
      Equally, nationalists and republicans have to resist ghetto politics, to struggle against Hibernianism and Catholic Actionism and romancing paramilitarism. There is no future in any return to physical force, and those who think so have to be defeated politically and isolated from support.
      These are huge tasks in undoing deep divisions, winning space for discussion, dialogue, and debate, making common cause between communities, and elevating respect for rights. The need is for building a new politics, not one based on permanent power-sharing head counts. It is only the left that has the theoretical grasp of the importance of democracy, rights and class politics and the strategic experience that can make this a reality.
      It is a process that will roll back reaction in Ireland, North and South, and pave the way to a national democratic state and a secular society.

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