Can't we all just get along? An apolitical response to political events in Belfast

The Peace Gathering

A Belfast comrade writes about the "Peace Gathering", called in response to Loyalist protests about the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall.

On 16th December 2012 about 1000 people gathered at Belfast City Hall in the wake of 2 weeks of demonstrations, some of them violent, by Loyalist protesters angered by the City Councils' decision to fly the Union Flag only on 'designated days' rather than the full 365 days a year as it has done up until now. The gathering at City Hall was billed as being 'about peace' and 'to show that Northern Ireland has moved on'. Leaving aside the facts that the approximately 1000 attendees were 1000 out of about 3500 who had proclaimed to be 'attending' on facebook, and the fact that a Loyalist demonstration the previous day at the same location was able to attract roughly similar numbers, we have to ask, 'moved on' to what?, and for whom?

So assured were the organisers of the undeniable righteousness of their cause, that any comments on the facebook page for the event that did as much as raise reasonable concerns over safety and security (due to chatter on Loyalist websites) were deleted as being 'fear mongering' or 'trolling'. People who talked of Buddah and Ghandi got lots of 'likes'. Some described themselves as 'The REAL people of Northern Ireland' ; are the flag protesters figments of the imagination? Their agenda may be utterly reactionary, but they are certainly to be taken more seriously than this 'gathering'. The organisers of the protest are, of course, beyond criticism by virtue of their 'doing something'.

The event was also billed as being 'not about politics'. This chimes perfectly with the liberal sentiments behind it, and is perfectly in line with some of the more nauseating criticisms of the protests and protesters. Lacking not only a political analysis, it lacks a class analysis. Time and again, unable to articulate a proper political critique of the events, nice liberal people who 'just want peace' have inadvertently very much allowed the issue of class to intrude on the debate, as they denigrate the protesters for being unemployed, for dressing like 'chavs' or worst of all, for disrupting Our Wee Economy. The middle classes in the form of local business people are losing money and it just wont do. The Continental Market might not come back for your other arm and leg next year. One might think that the protesters real crime was to come from the sorts of areas that have most definitely not 'moved on'. The word 'flegs' (a phonetic spelling of the way a pleb with a Belfast accent might pronounce the word 'flag') has become something of a meme.

We need to talk about politics, not to be 'non-political'. We need to state clearly that the 'politics' that have resulted from the Good Friday and Saint Andrews Agreements have copper-fastened a sectarian carve up of society and led to more physical and ideological barriers being put up between communities. Working class communities, that is.

We also need a proper political critique of the protests, beyond them being nasty and violent and not very xmas-like. Of course the protests and the ideology behind them are utterly reactionary and the naked sectarianism often on display is revolting. But more than that, it is depressing to see working class people demonstrating, often violently, their loyalty to a state, a ruling class, a monarchy that cares nothing for them except perhaps as cannon fodder and perpetrators of barbarism in its overseas adventures; revelling in their own and their forefathers willingness, then and now, to volunteer to be that cannon fodder. "We'll fight anyone to stay British - including the British" said Harry Murray during the Ulster Workers Council strike. The lack of evolution in thinking is laid bare.

Rather than hope that we can just all get along, we need to state that Unionism/Loyalism and Nationalism/Republicanism are reactionary ideologies all the time not just when they 'turn violent'. Of course a detente between them in terms of armed action is preferable, but ultimately they offer nothing to the working class except more division; division that impedes the type of united action that is needed if these communities are to start to turn around their disenfranchisement.

Obviously Loyalism and Republicanism are easy to critique; their agendas are in the open, clearly stated. What makes 'The Peace Gathering more pernicious is that we need to dig deeper, below the surface of the seemingly apolitical fluffiness to analyse what it really stands for. Really it amounts to no more than a call for capitalism as usual. It may not be the intention of the organisers to make it so, and probably plenty of people attending might consider themselves to be socialist or left wing in some way, others probably individually share the criticisms of our political institutions; but that is not reflected in the messages coming from the event. The most constant is the criticism of the protesters for the effects of their actions on the xmas trade (nobody seemingly wondering why people would give a fuck about disrupting an economy in which they have no stake, which in fact actively works against them). People were urged on the event page to make sure to go and spend, spend, spend in the Continental Market after the rally, to make up for its loss of trade over the past two weeks. The 'new Northern Ireland' right there, xmas consumerism run rampant. The irony of course, is that capitalism as usual will not bring these good people the peace they so earnestly desire. As capitalism continues its current heightened attacks on the working class, we could remove 'sectarianism' with a magic wand tomorrow, yet the worst off communities would still explode in anger as they did in UK cities in August 2011. As the state sheds more and more functions of welfare (social security, housing provision, health care) it retains one thing; the necessary armed force to contain the inevitable responses from people denied these basic needs.

We can't all just get along and we need to be clear about the reasons why, not let them be obscured by something as vague as this rally. Attempting to clap away over 30 years of historical fact and material reality so you can do more shopping is ridiculous. As anarchists and communists, we very much want the removal of sectarianism from society, but not so that everybody can hold hands and go shopping, but so that some genuine class politics might emerge.

As if to underline the futility and irrelevance of 'The (first) Peace Gathering', it was followed on the very next night by some of the worst and most widespread disruption and violence that had happened up to that point (worse still has happened since). Undeterred, another 'gathering' took place on Sunday January 13th, right after a night of violence that has now become 'the worst yet'. The people behind it are seemingly oblivious to all evidence that it will end when the protesters want it to end, or the police forcibly end it (leaving the underlying causes untouched) or it simply fizzles out gradually. There wouldn't have been 30+ years of sectarian conflict if standing in front of city hall could stop it.

Originally published by Liverpool SolFed

Posted By

Ramona
Jan 14 2013 21:43

Share


  • Rather than hope that we can just all get along, we need to state that Unionism/Loyalism and Nationalism/Republicanism are reactionary ideologies all the time not just when they 'turn violent'.

Attached files

Comments

Choccy
Jan 14 2013 22:02

Great article. Worth reading alongside Eamonn McCann's piece in the Belfast Tele for a slant that moves beyond calls for an abstract 'peace' or that there is anything close to a simple solution to this.
"No unilateral fix to hardship which spawned loyalist rage"

ArthurBagwaste
Jan 15 2013 08:44

This is amongst the few pieces I've read taking the slant that the "apolitical" nature of the Peace Gathering equates to liberal ineffectual abstractism. I'd like to offer a different view. The existence of the gathering itself is clearly a political act, an act of defiance of people coming together to publicly declare to those that are wreaking violence in pursuit of a narrow retrograde political aim that they are opposed to their methods. For many present, coming from the communities where this violence is originating and mostly being inflicted upon, this is a brave act of public defiance. The paramilitaries and their ancilliaries in these areas do not take kindly to opposition of any kind. Standing shoulder to shoulder with them were people from all communities, from all political persuasions, as a lifelong socialist I was happy to be present in this act of Solidarity with those who are suffering as their communities are torn apart by vested criminal and political interests. Others were there simply because they value peace as an abstract goal yes, others felt they needed to demonstrate to their political representatives the need for action, others still simply to vent frustration at the city being held to ransom. The yoghurt weaving drum-circle types may have been the most visible and noisy single grouping at the event, but this masked the diversity of the attendees. I identified Trade Unionists, Christian leaders, local businessmen, school kids, students, people from housing estates and cherry valley all standing together. Proper solidarity.
The decision to ban political trappings is also a powerful political one. People who attended did so in the spirit of solidarity, that the message of the combined force of the gathering was more important than proliferating their individual beliefs. This spirit is sadly lacking in the minute factionalism that plagues the left these days and we would all do well to learn from it.

PartyBucket
Jan 15 2013 13:42
ArthurBagwaste wrote:
I identified Trade Unionists, Christian leaders, local businessmen, school kids, students, people from housing estates and cherry valley all standing together. Proper solidarity.

Surely as a 'lifelong socialist' you should find Trade Unionists showing 'proper solidarity' with businessmen or people from housing estates showing 'proper solidarity' with people from Cherry Valley extremely problematic?
You may note that the article does state that it doesnt presume to know the personal position of every individual at the gathering or their personal reasons for attending, rather it is the message that is sent by it as a whole that is the problem. Precisely because it obscures very real differences in its abstract call for 'peace'. In fact its not much different than the 'all in this together' bullshit about austerity.

ArthurBagwaste wrote:
This spirit is sadly lacking in the minute factionalism that plagues the left these days and we would all do well to learn from it.

If by 'factionalism' you mean 'not happy to stand up for the interests of local business types' I'll happily take factionalism.

ArthurBagwaste
Jan 15 2013 13:55

I think businessmen and trade unionists showing solidarity with the working class loyalist communities who are being held to ransom by criminal gangs and exploited as political muscle by their so-called leaders, is an extremely positive thing, and only made possible by the lack of explicit political aims associated with the event.

I fail to see how you could claim it is not.

I personally was not particularly comfortable with the aspect of "supporting commerce" that some had attached to the enterprise, however, I felt that the presence of a united voice in opposition to the violence was more important in the long run than me griping about a specific aspect that some attendees had ascribed to the event. I felt it was better to attend and support the event and espouse my own beliefs at a more convenient and effective time.

Let's face it, we all know that an openly socialist-branded demonstration in support of the beleagured loyalist working class would have brought little more than a dozen of the usual suspects on to the streets.

flaneur
Jan 15 2013 14:29

Because when the nationalist gangs bugger off, working class communities will still be held to ransom by a different load of criminals backed up by political muscle. I don't suppose businessfolk would be interested in an appeal about that.

And so what? A Rihanna solidarity gig would be supported more than either but that doesn't mean you should jettison all meaningful political content to make sure more people turn up.

ArthurBagwaste
Jan 15 2013 14:44

"nationalist gangs"

ummmm......?

What it really comes down to is the glaring fact that this article, and others with a similar outlook on the event are invariably written by those who couldn't be bothered their hole to go to the event and perform even a cursory effort at research before dismissing it. To me solidarity means shutting up your ego for a minute and not trying to prove your socialism is better than anyone else's, and simply lending your presence to a cause that may not be precisely what you'd like to say.

This in no way procludes or undermines arguing for a more radical approach when the forum is appropriate and that will not simply be counter-productive grandstanding. I still think it's clear this is a lesson we on the left need to learn at the moment. We are hardly in a position of political ascendancy are we?

It's very difficult to accept that a philosophy of "why can't we all just get along?" is politcally invalid, when the alternative being put forward is "why can't we all just have a socialist revolution?".

ocelot
Jan 15 2013 14:59

I think it would be helpful if people looked into some more of the background to the flag protests (which the above article doesn't really do, tbf). I'm not suggesting that there is a single, mono-causal explanation for them, but one of the factors is the rise of the Stephen Matthews* led East Belfast UVF and their falling out with the British state, following the (failed) attempt at a supergrass trial last year and a botched assasination attempt. The continual attacks on the nationalist Short Strand enclave as part of the flag protests is a continuation of the June 2011 attack.

Traditionally loyalists licence to make money from protection rackets, prostitution and the drugs trade came from having a working relationship with the British state when it came to providing intel (usually grassing up their peers) and rubbing out the occasional target. Nowadays there's less call for such services and most veteran loyalists have been weened onto the "community worker" teat. Matthews, however, having become very publicly an "enemy of the state" (at least temporarily) has no access to such income and needs to cover his drug dealing empire with a political facade - both to recruit young, mostly unpaid, muscle, and also to keep out the competition from "ordinary decent criminal" dealers. The only real way to earn that political kudos is through conflict. Regardless of the origins of these protests and the other, very real, factors of alienation, material deprivation and social and political exclusion, that the McCann article talks about (for e.g.), there's no real dispute that two of Matthew's East Belfast UVF lieutenants have got heavily involved in building and organising these protests, and that anybody in Protestant East Belfast who is not on board with the flag protests and the sectarian attacks on Short Strand, faces a great deal of intimidation in expressing that in any way. As to what help the "Peace Gathering" protests can really have in counter-acting that, is an open question. But it does seem an odd inversion of perspective to say nothing about the flag protests themselves and then only find your voice again to attack the opposition demonstration (regardless of how impotent they may or may not be) for being "bourgeois", based on the pro-business arguments of some of the participants. Also I don't think the parallel between the August 2011 riots in Britain stand up - see again the attacks on Short Strand.

Some links:

BT: Flags row: One of the biggest crime gangs in Northern Ireland, and it’s out of control

BT: The Beast from East Belfast could put an end to flags violence right now... but he won’t

Irish News: Police 'letting down' nationalists: Adams

Quote:
[...]A number of homes were attacked and windows were smashed by loyalists on Saturday afternoon.

Frightened residents spent yesterday surveying the damage as workmen boarded up windows broken after they were attacked by loyalists throwing bricks and other missiles.

For a brief period there was hand-to-hand fighting after nationalist youths and home-owners attempted to defend their district.

Despite a heavy police presence the PSNI initially struggled [tr: didn't bother] to contain the trouble before eventually clearing loyalists from the area.

Debris was clearly visible yesterday as Mr Adams walked around Short Strand and spoke with residents whose homes were targeted.

Sinn Fein said Saturday's incident was the 15th time that an illegal loyalist procession has passed Short Strand since the flag protests began.[...]

* coyly referred to by his "beast from the east" nickname by the newspapers, as per the common convention of not naming serving paramilitary leaders in print.

ArthurBagwaste
Jan 15 2013 15:15

I agree with a lot of that assessment about the motives behind those involved in orchestrating these protests. There is a common view that this can be boiled to down to a "grant application" effectively loyalist paramilitaries extorting money with menaces from the government under the guise of community development.

In every analysis however the working class loyalist communities themselves are effectively pawns in these games, wedged in between the middle-class self-serving Unionist parties and the paramilitaries who parasite upon them. They are a community completely bereft of adequate political representation given flags and emblems as "victories" when what's needed are jobs, education and a sense of value in anything other than base loyalist and sectarian aims.

Deezer
Jan 15 2013 20:49

Just by way of information this article was originally submitted for publication to the forthcoming issue of the Leveller. To appear alongside it is a short general piece on the flag protests and a longer more in depth piece on the 'protestant' working class and progressive unionism. This one has appeared first because comrades in Liverpool SolFed thought it would be useful to publish it to the SolFed site. It is not a case of a voice only being found in response to the response. The article is really not a stand alone piece. I am sure the other Leveller articles will appear on here in due course and you can read them together.

ocelot
Jan 15 2013 21:43

Fair enough. I thought it was a bit odd that this was the only thing to say about the whole thing. Look forward to seeing the other pieces.

Maloney
Jan 16 2013 13:24

Really enjoyed reading this piece.

The WSM also has two articles specifically on the continuing flag protests including a much longer piece analysing the deeper issues involved from this link directly below

Ulster Loyalism, Flag Protests & the failure of zero sum politics-://www.wsm.ie/ulster-loyalism-flag-protests-zero-sum-politics%20

http://www.wsm.ie/c/working-class-unity-not-sectarian-diversions

Also check out:Anarchist articles on Ulster Loyalism & the Orange Order-http://www.wsm.ie/loyalism

An analysis of Irish Republicanism from an anarchist perspective. These range from analysis of the issues of the day to detailed re-examination of the history of the republican rebellions and movements-http://www.wsm.ie/republicanism

cantdocartwheels
Jan 18 2013 07:57
Deezer wrote:
Just by way of information this article was originally submitted for publication to the forthcoming issue of the Leveller. To appear alongside it is a short general piece on the flag protests and a longer more in depth piece on the 'protestant' working class and progressive unionism. This one has appeared first because comrades in Liverpool SolFed thought it would be useful to publish it to the SolFed site. It is not a case of a voice only being found in response to the response. The article is really not a stand alone piece. I am sure the other Leveller articles will appear on here in due course and you can read them together.

ah ok that makes more sense now,it had seemed slightly odd on its own tbh

Anyways Good article but i suppose it does beg the question of what people can do positively to get a more class based message across? What would be the ''next step''?.

ygwerin
Jan 18 2013 12:17

Overall a good article but by equating Loyalism and Republicanism together as equally ‘Reactionary’ you are missing your own point about learning the lessons from the past.
It’s necessary to know about Ireland’s history to be able to stand any chance of doing that, simply dismissing both traditions as “we know about them so can dump them together into the dustbin of history” is neither an accurate understanding nor a useful political solution to anything.

flaneur
Jan 18 2013 12:49

Because when republicans put bombs in nightclubs, shopping centres and English pubs, it was just unfortunate people then got blown up by them, as opposed to those nasty Loyalists. You'd have to have a short memory to forget anything, the narrative of progressive republicans dark ages loyalists has been the main one for the left in Ireland going back to the United Irishmen. A plague on both their houses is necessary if there's ever to be an anti-nationalist working class movement.

Deezer
Jan 19 2013 14:38

The reactionary nature of loyalism and republicanism is not usefully measured in terms of comparing 'atrocities'. Both are reactionary in terms of class politics because they promote the notion of national sovereignty. They are the two sides of irelands ongoing carnival of reaction. Dividing working class people and setting them against each other in the name of their conflicting nationalisms. Both actively undermine the development of revolutionary class politics and class unity.