The Belfast Flag Riots: Nation or Class?

Anyone tuning in to Radio 4’s Today programme this week would have been surprised to hear someone speaking about “the working class” and about the uselessness of all “middle class parties” to represent them. But the first frisson of interest quickly died. The realisation that this was just some Ulster Protestant bigot defending the riots against the decision taken by Belfast City Council on December 3rd not to fly the Union Flag 365 days a year on the City Hall made this a less promising story. The decision to only fly it on 18 days (such as Royalty birthdays) as happens throughout the rest of the UK is not enough for Loyalists who claim that the flag is all they have got left from the “peace process”.

Nationalism is not confined to either the Loyalist or Republican side in Northern Ireland. It is being manipulated by ruling classes who are in crisis all over the world. What is particular to Northern Ireland is that the identification with the “nation”, “loyalism” and “unionism” even “Republicanism” goes back much further. From the time of Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force just before the First World War, but more particularly after the establishment of an "independent" Ireland, the Protestant working class have been told that they held a special position in a sectarian state dominated by the mythology of the Orange Order. Whilst this was true in relation to Catholics, Protestant workers hardly lived the life of Reilly even in the post-war boom. In housing, places like Sandy Row were hardly people’s paradises, but in general the gerrymandered boundaries usually meant that a Protestant single parent could trump a Catholic family on the housing list. Even so Protestant workers were only marginally better off than their much discriminated against Catholic class comrades. During the post-war boom the ties of Orangeism meant that you had no need to worry too much about a job as your Dad would get you one in Short’s or Harland and Wolff or in some smaller firm. All you had to do was vote Unionist and turn up for the endless parades to defend “your” culture and all was fine. No matter that your wages were much lower than the same workers in Glasgow or Liverpool, you were part of a superior culture.

In the film Mississippi Burning the Gene Hackman character explains to his fellow cop how he guessed that his own father had poisoned the mule of a slightly more successful black farmer. When he realised his son had worked out what happened he excused himself with the line “If you are not better than a nigger what are you?” For “nigger” read “Catholic” or any of the many racist epithets that were used. This is the kind of mentality which was ingrained in the Protestant working class in the post-war period.

But in the late 1960s that post-war boom came to an end. The first consequence was that the working class Catholic minority could no longer put up with the outrageous discrimination in housing and jobs and took to the streets to demand “civil rights” (as Blacks were in the USA). The vicious response of Protestant mobs eventually led to the collapse of the old Unionist regime and direct rule from London. The British Government which had basically abandoned Ulster to the Protestants for a generation now sent in troops to protect the Catholics. Within a few months they were seen, not as liberators, but as oppressors of the Catholic minority and so began the long campaign of the Irish Republicans who turned to terrorism against both the Unionist majority and the British Army (which increasingly colluded with it). Over 3,500 were to die and over 100,000 seriously injured in the next three decades.

But as the Troubles developed so too did the crisis and this had further consequences for Northern Ireland. Like everywhere else in the UK, Northern Ireland suffered from de-industrialisation with the added factor that the violence led to an even more rapid flight of capital. The best educated of its workforce sought jobs outside Ulster and the entry of the Irish Republic and the UK into the EU meant that the Republic of Ireland had become a favoured target for direct inward investment by US companies, This has reversed the traditional order where Ireland was seen as a backward agrarian economy way behind the industrialised North.

Throughout it all the Unionists refused any notion of power sharing or reform and sabotaged all efforts to solve the problems of the North. After all as Ian Paisley kept monotonously repeating “we are the majority”. The IRA had though too came under sustained pressure. Two decades of armed resistance has seemingly produced little. With the end of the Cold War and a drying up of weapons and explosives from Libya and Eastern Europe, with the USA at last clamping down on funding from Irish-Americans, the “war” no longer looked winnable. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were suddenly transformed into establishment politicians ready to negotiate an end to the violence.

On the Unionist side anyone who offered any encouragement to the Republicans quickly lost votes. Secure in their voting majority they felt they didn’t need to make concessions. Thus the DUP came to replace the UUP as the major Loyalist party but even the DUP was brought up short when faced with the new demographic. With the Protestant exodus from the North and the higher birth rates amongst Catholics, it was made clear to them that, within a few decades, the majority would be on the other side. Both sides now had a reluctant interest in a “peace process”. Power sharing was the Unionist bourgeoisie’s last hope to retain any semblance of authority in the years to come. And the flag issue in Belfast is just one sign of what the future has to offer Loyalism. The city used to be overwhelmingly Loyalist but now is nearer to 50-50. The Nationalists wanted to have the Union flag taken down permanently but they can afford to compromise. They thus agreed to the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s compromise that the Union Flag be flown only 18 times a year on City Hall. This is not good enough for Loyalist ultras as it has flown there every day for over a century. The December 3 vote is symbolic that the Unionist ascendancy is over.

In reality though, the “peace dividend” has not happened for the working class, whether Catholic or Protestant, nationalist or loyalist. Unemployment is higher and wages lower than in the rest of the UK in both communities. The working class also has the same shared fate in the face of capitalist austerity. Cuts to welfare and services hit both sides. Yet the Unionists and Nationalist politicos have seen to it that the two sides are more segregated than ever. After all they don’t want to lose control of their own bases. On the Unionist side the talk is of the loss of their old secure existence, whilst on the Nationalist side the indicators still show that even though 16% of Protestant households have low incomes, it is 26% for Catholics. The run up to the current violence was the DUP’s distribution of over 40,000 leaflet blaming the Alliance Party for the removal of the flag from City Hall. The DUP’s leader Peter Robinson lost his Westminster seat to the Alliance (due to the exposure of corruption in his own family) at the last election. The incitement to this flag protest began with the DUP’s opportunistic attempt to regain control of “its” people. On the nationalist side Gerry Adams crowing that “Loyalism has never served the Protestant working class very well” could be mirrored by the same comment about republicanism for the Catholic working class.

Back in the 70s the Trotskyists and other left groups tried to persuade us that the nationalist working class, being more oppressed, was more worthy of support than the Loyalist working class (and superficially republicanism sounds a lot more progressive than monarchism). In fact the situation for workers on both sides was, and is, the same. Whichever faction workers identify with they are identifying with their exploiters. Or as James Conolly put it in 1910, nationalism of any kind is

a movement which would lay aside class contentions to gain national ends, so enabling the bourgeoisie to prevent working class expression.

Connolly, of course, later capitulated to that very nationalism when he took part in the Easter Rising but his earlier words ring truer than ever. Today some of the same Trotskyists are now arguing what we have always argued that the “workers have no country” (Marx) and that the issue is one of class not nation. This is welcome but it has never been an easy message to get across. We used to have a small section in Belfast which attempted to spread this message but had to dissolve in the face of threats to their existence. Some on the Left today still condemn the Protestant rioters as simply fascists. There is no doubt that the string pullers of the old Protestant paramilitaries are leading the way and that the BNP, the EDL etc., ever eager to wrap themselves in the flag are not far away, but the real material basis for the riots is that the system has failed them.

Most of those joining in the riots are too young to remember the horrors of the recent past. But those that lead them are still banging an old drum. What they have not seen is that the Unionists who they now accuse of betrayal were selling them the bosses’ line all along. Being British has nothing to offer any more than being Irish has. The real fight is for a new society which recognises neither national distinctions nor states, which abolishes exploitation and money to give everyone a meaningful existence within a more prosperous world. But to achieve that we must first recognise the reality of our common working class character which all kinds of bourgeois parties try to deny. There are no short cuts, nor “lesser evils” to take sides with, in this. A struggle though against the reactionary ideologies of a global capitalist class in crisis will not be easy nor achieved in the immediate term. It an only be achieved by long term persistent and consistent work within workplaces and in communities. It can only come about through revolutionaries gaining the trust of those who have become the victims of capitalist ideology and winning them away from a narrow localism to a bigger agenda. It can only come out when these communities gain the confidence in themselves to run their own lives and not wait like serfs or plebs for some “middle class politician” of whatever stripe to deliver on unkept promises. And not just in Northern Ireland but across the planet …

The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go … socialism is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Christian nor Freethinker, Buddhist, Mahometan, nor Jew; it is only Human. We of the socialist working class realise that as we suffer together we must work together that we may enjoy together. We reject the firebrand of capitalist warfare and offer you the olive leaf of brotherhood and justice to and for all.

James Connolly 1910


Sunday, January 13, 2013