Big House Bigotry and the Good Friday Agreement - Black Flag

Article on Northern Ireland and New Labour from Black Flag #218 1999.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 4, 2020

In the week before he ruled that the Apprentice Boys could parade along the Ormeau Road in defiance of the wishes of the local community; Parades Commission Chair, Alistair Graham, had a meeting in Downing Street. Faced with an impasse in the peace process, caused by Loyalist intransigence, Tony Blair decided to reward their refusal to enter into dialogue by endorsing their right to sectarian triumphalism. The Republican movement's reward for their engagement in the peace process was to see nationalists batoned off the Orrneau Road. A spokesman for the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community said "The police were brutal. It was the worst I've ever seen. I'm relieved no one in my community is dead. I have never seen brutality like I saw from the RUC today." New Labour has clearly decided that the Orange veto will be, as always, preserved by force.

Much attention has focused on the death of RUC informer Charles Bennett, to the extent that Bennett's family has accused "certain political parties" of using his death as a "political football". The IRA have issued a statement that their cease-fire remains intact. Yet the press have homed in on the Bennett killing whilst totally ignoring the continuing sectarian attacks across the Six Counties, or the UDA's admission that its ceasefire is on "tenterhooks". In Belfast, the UDA has resumed targeting known republicans. The Portadown killing of Elizabeth O'Neill in a pipe bomb attack was barely acknowledged. Instead we have been fed stories of nationalist intransigence and the 'peaceful' nature of the Portadown District Orange Lodge's protests at Drumcree this year.

Breandan Mac Cionnaith, spokesperson for the Gavarghy Road Residents Coalition, has observed that, "just like in 1997, the British Government is trying to implement another game plan that is going to see Orange marches forced through. For the benefit of Tony Blair and Alistair Graham, I give you this message: The Gavarghy Road is there. If you want to force an Orange march down it, try. Because we will resist inch by inch and millimetre by millimetre." David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party have made it clear that they have no intention of sharing power with nationalists. Since Trimble entered negotiations in September 1997, he has done everything in his power to delay and frustrate the move towards, and subsequent implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Trimble is currently threatening the internet booksellers Amazon because of their distribution of Sean McPhilemy's book, The Committee (see review, Black Flag 217), wherein he is named by a witness as a close associate of members of a Loyalist murder conspiracy which included Loyalist assassins Billy Wright and Robin Jackson.

In behaving like a true Orange bigot throughout the Stormont talks, Trimble has done no more than his constituency expected of him. In allowing the Ulster Unionist Party to dictate the agenda, Blair has done what British Governments always do; underwritten the Unionist veto. The UUP'S position of "no guns, no government" is outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement they pretend to support. The Agreement requires only an electoral mandate as a precondition for executive office. All participants are required to work in good faith with the International Commission on arms decommissioning. As Gerry Adams has noted

“The Good Friday Agreement was signed up to by a British government. It is British government policy. The British government have a responsibility to implement the agreement as negotiated, not in a manner demanded by the UUP, which is outside the terms of the agreement. There has been no movement on demilitarisation. There is no acceptable policing service. There is no human rights agenda. We do not have equality. All of these issues are basic rights. They are also key elements of the Agreement.”

(Good Friday Agreement Only Way Forward, in An Phoblacht, July)

Possibly the most obscene manifestation of Loyalist hypocrisy to date was the comment of John Taylor MP, following the shooting of Richard McFerran. Taylor threatened Unionist withdrawal from the talks (who'd notice?) "because of continuing IRA violence... especially against the Catholic community". Taylor has not concerned himself at all with the blatant anti-Catholic aggression of the LVP and UDA. The siege of the Gavarghy Road caused him no trouble. Taylor is only concerned with the lives of the nationalist community when he can use them to sectarian advantage. The IRA has denied involvement with the deaths of McFerran and Bennett and no evidence linking them with either has been produced.

A recent survey in The Irish Times showed that 60% of the Unionist community still support the Good Friday Agreement, recognising that it could lead to "the creation of a partnership of mutual esteem between nationalism and unionism". Nevertheless, it is still the voice of Trimble, the stentorian bigotry of the Loyalist laager, which is assumed to speak for the Protestant people.

Four years ago we were told there was a new Unionism at large and when the likes of the Progressive Unionist Party's David Ervine said, "The politics of division see thousands of people dead, most of them working class," it was tempting to believe it. "We have been fools" he said, "Let us be fools no longer. You can't eat a flag," Gusty Spence described the Shankhill as "The heartland of empire, where we ruled over nothing but poverty", and it felt as if some of the Loyalist paramilitaries had begun to see they had been duped. The UVP ceasefire remains intact, but substantial numbers have defected to the LVP, and the UDA ceasefire exists only as cruel joke. The voices of "progressive Unionism" have been sidelined.

The reason is clear enough. The Loyalist working class recognised in a resurgent nationalism, a threat to its sectarian privileges. In the 60s such 'privileges' were marginal, but remained a material fact and many took up arms to defend them. The PUP exists as a partial recognition of the fact that Protestant workers had nothing to fear from the nationalist working class and that in being reduced to foot soldiers for the likes of Paisley and Trimble, they'd receive nothing more than gaol terms and economic decay.

But Unionism is, by its nature, loyal to the state — albeit an idealised state rather than the day-to-day government of the six counties. The basis of that loyalty is, for Protestant workers, fear. A fear of losing something that no longer exists, but fear all the same. It is not possible to build a coherent socialist politics on the basis of Unionism. Unionism implies 1) loyalty to the state and crown and 2) the maintenance of the nationalist community as an insurgent 'other'.

Unless the likes of Trimble are challenged outright, as being the latest in a line of bigots who have divided the working class in the six counties in their own interests. Spence and Ervine will be forever sidelined, trying to 'democratise' a politics built on the denial of democracy. It is the logic of Unionism itself that needs to be abandoned. So long as ordinary Protestants are told their interests lie with the Union, the Trimbles and Paisleys will always win, because every move towards power sharing will be seen as an attack on the Union. If you are a socialist or a democrat, you cannot ultimately, be a Unionist. You may try, but history will undermine you at every turn.

Sinn Fein continues to hold dialogue with the PUP. Dawn Purvis, a PUP co-ordinator, has denounced "big house Unionism" as being concerned with "Protestant fears rather than people's rights". She says, "The Ulster Unionist Party's position was: keep the Union safe. I'm saying to myself, where's the housing, where's the food on my children's table?" With the determination of Trimble and the UUP to tear the Agreement apart, the best hope is that people like Ervine and Spence hold their courage and argue that Protestant fears have been used to deny Protestant rights as well as nationalist rights. If the apostles of Orange bigotry are to be denied their day, there need to emerge forces within the Loyalist working class who will declare explicitly for equality and democratic power sharing and put those ideas into practice on the ground.