The rioting and intimidation on the streets, and the physical attacks and threats against properties and the lives of people – including elected politicians and the police – have drawn condemnation from many quarters.
Although notable that the British Secretary of State failed to make a statement for over a week, and eventually did so in the House of Commons after pressure from Labour and others, she eventually described the violence as ‘disgraceful’ and called for it to stop. This added to the mounting pressure on unionist politicians.
Sectarian threats and violence, focused around some loyalist marches over the summer, and attacks on Catholic churches, have been the backdrop to the current events over the flying of the Union flag. The failure of political unionism to show leadership in fully condemning these earlier attacks and their approach to the current events – in particular the DUP – have come under increasing focus.
So what lies behind this? The ongoing violent reaction to Belfast City council’s decision to fly the Union flag on 17 designated days represents the latest expression of reactionary resistance to the progressive changes and the dynamics of the Good Friday Agreement.
Belfast is a city which now has a majority of Catholics. In this context the imposition of the Union flag – which not only represents just one section of the community but is a symbol of British and unionist domination and discrimination over the other section – is an even greater insult. But decades of ‘one-party’ unionist rule at Belfast city council has long gone, primarily as a result of the political struggle led by Sinn Féin and their electoral rise, which has overcome gerrymandering and political exclusion. Indeed, this change was particularly symbolised by Sinn Féin holding the Mayoralty on a number of occasions in the recent period.
Belfast’s first Sinn Féin Mayor, Alex Maskey, himself received unprecedented levels of intimidation and threats when elected as the party’s first Belfast councillor in the early 1980s. He was shot and left for dead on one occasion and survived a number of other assassination attempts.
The current death threats and violence against Alliance, Sinn Féin and other politicians over the flags issue is nothing new when it comes to those resisting change.
However, progressive change has happened, despite all of this, and across the six-counties mechanisms and moves to overcome discrimination against the Catholic population and ensure democratic political representation are among the most important gains of the peace process. They are the product of the political struggle led by Sinn Féin, and part of the overall strengthening of the Irish national struggle, and weakening of unionism and British rule in Ireland.
Dismantling key elements of the sectarian state – the sectarian glue which holds this colonial entity together – has been a critical issue and is an ongoing struggle. That something which may seem as minor as the flying of a flag could result in such a violent response underlines this.
As Sinn Féin correctly argues, Belfast, just like the rest of the six counties, has to be a city which represents and reflects all the people that live there. Flying the Union flag on designated days rather than every day, as happens in other councils in the six counties and in the Assembly, is in line with this aspiration. It is a very moderate step to take. It does not propose that the flag be removed altogether. The failure and hypocrisy of unionist parties to support this not only shows a lack of leadership, but gives encouragement and legitimacy to those protests.
However, the position of the Alliance party who put forward the compromise on the issue that the flag be flown only on designated days is significant, and is why they are being made a focus of the attacks. The Alliance party is a unionist party, albeit a moderate one. Their position does represent a further shift within part of unionism into a real acceptance that change is taking place. The position of some others within the Ulster Unionist party, for example Basil McCrea, in supporting the Alliance’s position is also notable.
Each step forward for equality in the six counties, and erosion of the sectarian state and all of its trappings, has of course always been met with reactionary resistance. The current violence and threat to life is dangerous and all efforts to bring it to an end have to be supported.
However, the context is one where this position is losing support. The majority of the political parties, and even of the main parties in the British state, are lined up in opposition to the violence. The police are being deployed and ‘loyalist’ protesters are attacking them – an unthinkable scenario previously.
Most people accept that change has to take place and support moves towards equality. As Sinn Féin assert, the days of nationalists and the Catholic population accepting a position of second class citizenship are over. The increasing divisions within unionism reflect this reality. Moreover, DUP leader Peter Robinson’s recent assertions that some Catholics today support the union and unionist parties are even more ludicrous in the light of the current events.
In reality, it is the union, and in particular the discrimination the six-county state was based on, which is being eroded.
A further point is that the base of loyalism is also in decline. Whilst there is still discrimination with sections of existing industry still excluding Catholics, loyalism cannot fight for preferential job hiring any longer. So they are fighting for symbols of ascendency, as the days of actual ascendency are at an end. The violent reaction to the steps taken by Belfast city council is the latest expression of this.
The left in Britain should call for an end to the violence and support those continuing to fight for equality and progressive change in the current period.
Ultimately, the left should press for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, something which the current Tory government is not only failing to do, but is also rolling back in some aspects, such as justice and policing and dealing with the past.
The current and any future government must also begin to recognise that, as outlined in the Agreement, it is for the people of Ireland to decide its future. The political, economic and demographic shifts all point in the direction of the future re-unification of Ireland. Not only electoral trends, including the rise in support for Sinn Féin, but also the new census figures reinforce this, and show a further closing of the gap between the Catholic and Protestant populations.
For the first time, the number of Protestants overall in the six counties fell below 50 per cent, and are now at 48 per cent. The figure for Catholics is 45 per cent. And whilst these figures do not of course automatically correlate to those for or against Irish unity, they give some indication of the trends. The census also showed a minority identifying as ‘British’, at 40 per cent, and with 21 per cent identifying as Irish (and holding Irish passports) and 20 per cent as ‘northern Irish’.
This fundamental dynamic is what underpins the current political developments. The left needs to understand this, and ensure that it is on the political agenda, and supported.