The worst sectarian rioting in years has broken out in Northern Ireland and the mainstream media is blaming ‘both sides’. While this might have the appearance of fairness and balance, it misses the deeper causes.
According to Loyalist spokespersons, the riots started over the failure of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders for attending a funeral of Bobby Storey, in breach of Covid 19 rules. This, it is claimed, reflects the ‘two-tier’ policing of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Loyalists are faced with a repressive stick – republicans are treated with kid gloves.
The absurdity of this can easily be demonstrated.
On March 7th, hundreds gathered in the Shankill to celebrate the victory of Rangers in the Scottish League. Nobody was prosecuted. In June 2020, hundreds joined a ‘protect our statues’ mobilization at the Cenotaph in Belfast. Not a single prosecution was issued. The week before, however, 70 fines had been issued to those who attended a socially distanced Black Lives Matters protest.
Similarly, in February the PSNI broke up a memorial service attended by 30 people who were commemorating the victims of loyalist assassination at Sean Graham’s bookmakers in 1992, claiming they breached COVID-19 rules.
Loyalists say they are angry about Irish Protocol which involves checks on goods such as meat, milk, fish and eggs entering Northern Ireland from Britain, yet this results directly from the DUP’s links with the Tory party.
They aligned with its most right-wing elements to get a hard Brexit and kept them in government. They mistakenly thought that Brexit would create a further barrier to Irish unity. The link with the Tories also reflected their natural disposition. The DUP is a nasty, homophobic, racist party who thought their day had come when Trump and Boris Johnson were in the ascendant.
In November 2018, Boris Jonson attended the DUP and received an ecstatic reception. He told them:
‘We would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland… I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.’
Yet this is precisely what Johnson did. When it came to a choice between looking after the wider interests of British capitalism or the loyalty of Ulster Protestants, there was no contest. And, ironically, the person charged with implementing regulatory checks was none other than the DUP Minister, Edwin Poots. He huffed and puffed but then stated that if they were ‘light touch’ then ‘that wouldn’t be particularly damaging to the economy.’
The result has been massive disillusionment among the Unionist population. An opinion poll in February indicated that the DUP’s share of the vote had declined to just 18% while the Traditional Unionist Voice had risen to 10%.
The DUP responded in the only way it knew – whipping up sectarian sentiment to consolidate its electoral base. They met with the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group of paramilitaries, to encourage them to mount a campaign against the Irish protocol. Soon, graffiti and marches of masked men started. The DUP gave them cover by claiming that the protests would ‘not be violent’.
This, however, is a traditional game played by DUP leaders ever since the days of Ian Paisley. The party gives a signal for actions which they know will escalate – but then they rush back to their respectable middle-class positions – ‘appealing for calm’ while hoping to benefit from concessions.
Irish Unionism has a peculiar relationship to Britain. Its working-class component knows that it is treated with contempt by Tories but sometimes thinks that if it screams ‘betrayal’ loud enough it can awaken their imperial conscience. However, the betrayal that came with the Irish Protocol was different. There is now physical evidence that the North is not regarded as a proper part of the UK. No one can now imagine that the province is as ‘British as Finchley’, an assertion once attributed to Margaret Thatcher. Hence behind the riots is a deeper anxiety about the fate of the Union.
Many are surprised by these developments after the 23 years of relative peace that followed the Belfast Agreement. Yet that agreement only managed and inscribed sectarian divisions into the structures of government. It did not reduce sectarianism but put a premium on voting for the hardest communal representatives to make gains for ‘our side’. Even before the riots there were nearly 100 ‘peace’ walls separating Protestant and Catholic working-class areas in Belfast.
The Belfast Agreement was also designed to create a neoliberal, low pay paradise for multi-national corporations. Behind all the public spats between the DUP and Sinn Fein, there was private agreement on this economic strategy. There has been no ‘peace dividend’ for working class communities. The median wage of Protestants and Catholics is now exactly equal with workers from both denominations earning an average of £10.58 an hour in 2017. However, while there is an equality between Catholics and Protestants within Northern Ireland, it is more a case of equality of poverty. Wages in Northern Ireland are less than those in Britain as a whole and are significantly worse in the private sector, bringing high levels of poverty for both sections of workers. A recent audit of education inequality shows that 100,000 young people, or one in three, are entitled to free school meals. Those receiving these meals have a 17 per cent attainment gap in achieving five good GCSE grades compared to students who do not. Within those figures, young Protestant male students fare worst.
So, yes, there are reason for shouting ‘betrayal’. The history of the Northern state encourages Protestant workers to focus on the ‘other side’ as the cause of their misery. But they have been ‘betrayed’ by those who shout the loudest about ‘the Union’- the Tories and the DUP. They may talk about a ‘British identity’ – based on parading, celebrating imperial adventures, and the Queen as a defender of Protestantism – but it is not one recognised by many actual British people. It is a mythology designed to foster divisions so that right wing politics smothers working class interests. It is time to look in a different way – to a radical alternative united Ireland that challenges both states that grew out of partition.
Kieran Allen is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University College Dublin. His new book is 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland. His previous books books include 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition (2016) and The Politics of James Connolly (2016).