The eruption of sectarian rioting and attacks over several weeks in Belfast has demonstrated that the so-called ‘peace process’ and the establishment of a power-sharing government have failed to end sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.
Fierce rioting, such as that which took place over three days from 2 September to 5 September, in the Carlisle Circus area of North Belfast, points to a new flashpoints and conflicts over territory. If not countered by the working class movement, this can threaten to develop into major conflicts, which could potentially dwarf recent events.
12th July parades and dissident republicans
Every year, Orange Order parades culminate on 12th July. Ahead of this year’s 12 July, the Parades Commission restricted the Orange Order [a Protestant organisation] to only three of its lodges marching past shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast, and by no later than 4pm. This led to tension and anger, particularly in Protestant areas. An hour after the Orange Order passed Ardoyne, approximately 1,500 Catholics, led by Greater Ardoyne Residents Association (GARC - a dissident republican-controlled resident group) marched along the Crumlin Road, which was intended to confront the Orange Order march. However, the Orange Order was only permitted to march the route in advance of the GARC protest. Some minor altercations took place as the GARC march was only separated by a thin line of police (PSNI) from a gathering counter-protest of 300 loyalists. But intense rioting later ensued between dissidents and the PSNI, which saw gunfire from both sides.
For many in the Protestant community, and not just those in the Orange Order or Loyalist groups, the Parades Commission is seen as one-sided and they believe they have their “backs against the wall”.
The Socialist Party opposed the establishment of the Parades Commission, which was is appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and which is responsible for placing restrictions on or banning outright any parades in Northern Ireland it deems contentious or offensive. As the Socialist Party warned, the Parades Commission would invariably come down on one side’s favour, resulting in grievances on the other side, instead of reaching agreement via negotiations between residents and the Orange Order.
On the same day as the Ardoyne disturbances, a Loyalist marching band from the Upper Shankill, called the Young Conway Volunteers, was captured on video by local Catholic residents stalling outside St Patricks Catholic Church, close to Carlisle Circus, playing an anti-Catholic sectarian song. Minor scuffles broke out at the scene. Dissident republicans, in particular, used this sectarian display to mobilise Catholics from the nearby Carrick Hill estate on 25 August against a march by the Black Receptory [Royal Black Institution, which was formed out of the Orange Order]. The Black Receptory marched past St Patricks Church, playing music in a blatant sectarian gesture after the Parades Commission ruled that no music be played by passing bands.
Dissident republicans have added to the sectarian atmosphere and conflict by organising more confrontational and provocative marches. Without a hint of irony, Republican Network for Unity, a broad dissident formation, called a march on 2 September through Catholic North Belfast to commemorate the anti-sectarian, 18th century United Irishmen leader, Henry Joy McCracken. As the march approached Carlise Circus, which separates the lower Shankill from the Catholic Antrim Rd, approximately 300 loyalists attacked the march leading to three nights of intense rioting. Over sixty police officers were injured. Water cannon were used by police and six baton rounds (plastic bullets) were fired.
Sectarian parties stoke the flames
For several days the radio airwaves were filled by accusation and counter-accusation, with sectarian elements from each side blaming the other. Leading members of the Democratic Unionist Party, including ministers in the Assembly Executive, have played a central role in stoking-up this conflict. Sinn Fein has also contributed to increasing tensions. In fact, this latest conflict has shown, in outline, the inherent contradictions in the Assembly [local parliament], i.e. members of the same power-sharing government are on different sides of the sectarian battle lines.
It is inevitable that calls from the DUP to scrap the Parades Commission will be strongly objected to by Sinn Fein and the ‘moderate nationalist’ SDLP.
The conflict over parades has the potential to create political paralysis in the Assembly.
Over the last fifteen years, conflict has erupted frequently over contentious parades. Sometimes conflict around certain parades has been short-lived. This new dispute in north Belfast is much more likely to rumble on and perhaps even become a new flashpoint, like the dispute around parades in the Drumcree area, near Portadown town, did for several years in the 1990s/2000s. Whether it does depends, in large part, on the actions of sectarian forces on both sides over the coming days, weeks, months and years, but also from widespread opposition to sectarianism from the working class.
Why is this contentious route in north Belfast fundamentally different from most others? It is on the edge of the Belfast city centre and conflict there has the potential to explode the carefully cultivated myth of ‘normality’. The Lower Shankill is a Loyalist heartland - perhaps the Loyalist heartland. The leadership of the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force – a Loyalist paramilitary organisation] are based in the Shankill area and are reportedly under pressure from their rank and file to counter the actions of dissident republicans. Also, the headquarters of the Orange Order is located just yards from Carlisle Circus in north Belfast. It is not one or two parades, or even one or two dozen, which start here every year but over 120. There is the potential for conflict not annually or twice a year but at least weekly.
Potential for rising conflict
These events have taken on a further and immediate importance because while the marching season would now normally now be coming to an end, this year it is different. On 29 September, tens of thousands are due to march down the same route to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant [The Ulster Covenant was signed by just under half a million men and women on and before 28 September 1912, in protest against the Third Home Rule Bill, introduced by the British government].
On 6 September the Royal Black Preceptory issued an apology for the incident on 25 August and talks with the aim of calming the situation have begun. There are some indications that a deal may be done, which will ensure peace on 29 September. However it will not be easy to cap this particular volcano.
These events are yet another demonstration that sectarianism has not been overcome by the ‘peace process’. The rioting also reflects the social conditions which exist in many working class communities, where has been no ‘peace dividend’. No politician from the main parties can solve these problems. All the Assembly parties depend upon sectarian division to maintain their political power.
A way forward
The Socialist Party has long argued that competing rights are at stake in the conflict over parades. Despite being a right-wing, reactionary organisation, the Orange Order has the right to parade. The residents of local areas have the right to object to parades through their areas with all the accompanying sectarian ‘coat-trailing’ and intimidation. But, most importantly, the working class, as a whole, has the right to avoid being dragged into serious sectarian conflict over the issue of contentious parades.
A stark assertion from the Orange Order that it can simply march where it chooses is not part of the solution. Nor is a refusal to talk to residents. However, it is not as simple as saying that the solution is no marches, especially when a contentious march takes place along a main arterial route. Any agreement must involve stewarding, organised by the marchers and local residents themselves, and accordingly no police presence in the area.
Agreement must be reached around the frequency and conduct of parades, including who takes part in and accompanies parades. Local residents must allow the possibility of parades when seeking negotiations - there must be something to negotiate. Any solution must take into account the right of all to live in peace from sectarian harassment, all year round.
Anti-sectarian socialist alternative needed!
A growing layer of workers and young people are completely disillusioned with the main parties. A new party of the working class, which actively combats sectarianism, is urgently needed. Such a new party must develop out of the struggles of the working class and young people and must be able to sink roots in both communities, if it is to be viable.
The trade union movement has an essential part in bringing such a party into being and must now begin to take steps in this direction. A new party will only develop a stable mass base if it adopts the socialist policies which are capable of delivering real change for the communities in every working class community in Northern Ireland. Ultimately only a socialist transformation of society is capable of delivering real change and sweeping away the poison of sectarianism forever.