Ulster loyalism, flag protests and the failure of zero sum politics

The continuing opposition by loyalists to the decision by Belfast city council to limit the flying of the Union Jack is a product of a deeply sectarian colonial settlement that smothers the importance of class.

Submitted by Maloney on January 9, 2013

The disturbances were pretty predicable in the context of summer riots over parading, intra unionist rivalry and rising anger in traditional protestant working class communities over shortage of jobs, housing and perceived gains made by the ‘nationalist’ community. The mass inflammatory leafleting by unionist parties in the days leading up to the council vote served to heighten fears in a constituency which is easily inflamed and mobilised in defence of the realm. This is not the cause of the disturbances; but the logical conclusion of capitalist decay and opportunist politicians battling for the hearts and minds of protestant working class communities- disenchanted and disillusioned with the peace dividends promised over 10 years ago.

Since December, roads continue to be sporadically blocked across the North for short periods of time along with pockets of rioting, while Alliance Party offices were attacked and in some cases burned and council chambers stormed - representing a challenge for the PSNI. The attempted storming of Belfast City Hall on the night of the vote was the fuse which lit the media fire as sections of the liberal press, business and political class lined up to condemn the violence as bad for business and the brand image of the new era. Incidentally, although reactionary by nature, these protests serve as a timely reminder that our ruling class only take notice when we actually move beyond the ritual art of ‘peaceful protest' and engage in civil disobedience and 'violence'.

Jason Walsh, a journalist based in Dublin, hit the nail on the head writing, ‘Press coverage has focused on outrage among the middle classes and the threat that the violence poses to traders and wider investment in the ‘New Northern Ireland’. Neither of these claims is inaccurate, but both are beside the point. The most revealing thing about the riots is that they show the vacuity of identity politics – on both sides of the sectarian divide. Walsh added, ‘’Smug, middle-class Unionists, republicans and liberals who can’t understand why there is all this kerfuffle over a flag would do well to ponder just who it was that transformed a territorial conflict into a cultural one and what the endgame was actually supposed to be.(1)

Flag Smokescreen?

Predictably various shades of republicans have cashed in on the flag riots in a triumphalist bemusing fashion, full of irony and humour- much of which has been documented on social media sites such as Facebook and Youtube. Rather than seeking to understand the underlying root causes of the disturbances, and their failure to make their politics relevant to the protestant working class beyond sound bites of ‘national liberation’ and references to the United Irishmen, their focus has been on the low level of policing and arrests in comparison to republican protests.

As anarchists we recognize the fact that imperialism has no progressive role to play in Ireland or anywhere else and has left a partisan legacy of collusion, torture and state sponsored terrorism. At the same time we are not surprised by the nature of state repression.

It is only natural that the ruling class and its armed wing will utilise all instruments of repression at its disposal against any perceived threat to ‘national security’ and its monopoly over the use of violence. In Ireland, republicanism has been traditionally cast as the main threat and ‘bogeyman’, while in other countries it has been anarchists and so forth.

However, anti anarchist scaremongering is never far away from the media discourse even in the wee north. In a sensationalised headline in the Newtownabbey Times in December, following rioting in the staunchly loyalist estate of Mossley Hill and Rathcoole, the paper led off with ‘anarchists hell-bent on damage and destruction’.

According to The South and East Antrim Community Federation spokesman, Tommy Kirkham, a former independent loyalist councillor who previously represented the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group, described claims that known paramilitaries were behind the trouble as “convenient”, adding that young people intent on anti-social behaviour and “anarchists hell-bent on damage and destruction” were responsible for the disturbances.(2) While it would be a welcome development if there was a growing class struggle anarchist presence in Newtownabbey, these allegations are ridiculous and a complete distortion of reality as anarchism is opposed to all forms of nationalism and patriotism. We the working class have no business getting involved in the petty squabbles over flags between political parties who we have nothing in common with, as we need to get rid of the entire capitalist system.

While acknowledging the legacy of partisan policing, the reality is it is much easier to police, gather intelligence and make arrests at a peaceful sit down protest with the annual ritual of rioting which takes places in a small densely populated and confined community like Ardoyne than at illegal blockades and rolling demonstrations across the North. We also need to take into account that policing tactics have considerably evolved in the North over the last 30 years (in conjunction with policing ‘reform’) as the police tend to gather intelligence and make arrests (due to the higher threat level) after the event rather than using ‘snatch squads’ as in other parts of Europe. This is not an attempt to justify and legitimize state policing but to merely understand the PSNI facilitation of illegal protests and other dynamics at work which underpin some degree of policing in the 21st century.

Beneath the media spectacle and claims by Sinn Fein that this is a victory for the nationalist community is the ugly reality of a pacification zero-sum process which has strengthened and entrenched sectarianism, as symbols and emblems are used as cultural weapons to both hide internal class contradictions and instil fear. It is worth referring to Rudolf Rocker on the subject of nationalism and patriotism; “we must not forget that we are always dealing with the organised selfishness of privileged minorities which hide behind the skirts of the nation, hide behind the credulity of the masses. We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.’

For the Provisional movement this limiting of the number of days the Union Jack flies outside Belfast City Hall is in reality a compromise rather than any real victory. This strategy is underpinned by a movement which is more concerned about playing the green card, ‘identity politics’ and the ‘parity of esteem’ rather than any notion of radical transformation and class unity. (Read- http://www.wsm.ie/c/review-politics-sinn-fein-kevin-bean-insurgency-identity) By embarking along this path, Sinn Fein have only served to alienate an important constituency which it needs for its long-term aim of an Ireland of equals and national reconciliation. In doing so republicanism and its most progressive currents is dealt a further blow being perceived as merely being a form of ‘catholic nationalism.’

The reactionary nature of Ulster Loyalism

For Ulster loyalism and unionism this is another PR disaster but one which a community that perceives itself to be under siege will have little empathy for. The riots bring to focus growing mistrust and alienation between ‘working class loyalism’ and ‘big-house’ unionism which has often been an ambiguous relationship (despite uniting when perceived to be under threat by the 'other’) that republicans ignore at their own peril. (3) It also provides a useful ‘cause’ for rival and divided loyalists to rally under as their credibility and image has been undermined in protestant working class areas by years of internal turmoil and conflict.

As expected, unionist politicians exploited the fears and tension of the flags debate, scapegoating the Alliance party and standing shoulder to shoulder with demonstrators on rallies and picket lines, while far-right elements facilitated by elements of loyalism are more than happy to fill the vacuum in loyalist heartlands. Former BNP members Paul Golding and Jim Dowson (with past offences for loyalist gun-running) who are now members of the British First party were guest speakers at rallies organised by a group called the United Protestant Voice outside the city hall. While links between loyalist paramilitaries and fascists is nothing new, this latest development sets a dangerous precedent for anti-fascists and progressive forces.

Anyone with any lingering notions in the ‘socialist’ Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) should take note as they seek to outgun and out-British each other in a manner and style similar to the English Defence League. Paradoxically they agreed a number of years ago to fly the flag on certain designated days. Despite the organisers promising that tens of thousands will take to the streets in villages and towns across the North nothing has appeared on this scale and they have been largely confined to 'unionist' working class areas. An indication of the steady decline from the days of the Drumcree standoff but this will provide little comfort for those living in interface areas.

Unlike Irish Republicanism, with all its faults, which at times developed significant ’left strands’’ only to be recuperated by green nationalism and the logic of ‘labour must wait’, Ulster Loyalism has once against revealed its true chauvinistic colours and reactionary sectarian agenda while conveniently ignoring the reality that any future Irish unity depends on its consent. It serves a reactionary agenda in all its forms providing foot soldiers and henchmen for the ruling class and the far-right- a threat to any progressive movement that espouses real freedom and social equality.

However, despite claims by some shades of republicanism, variants of unionism are not simply dupes of British imperialism and at times exert their own agenda which can be in conflict with the crown. But it would be foolish to assume any progressive outcome of this ambigous relationship and this latest flashpoint hightlights this. In this dangerous vacuum the wider left and labour movement needs to step up to the challenge and provide a principled alternative which provides a gateway to the politics of class and a better society from the ashes of sectarianism and imperialism.

It is worth dispelling some of the myths and fears over housing and deprivation that provide the wider backdrop to the continuing loyalist ‘grievances’’ which sections of the media help to legitimise without challenging and exposing.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) produced The Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2010, and it is viewed as ‘the official measure of spatial deprivation in Northern Ireland.’ It collates data relating to the status of individuals residing in every one of the 582 wards in Northern Ireland, using these figures to rank the status of each ward in relation to a range of domains including Income, Employment, Health Deprivation and Disability as well as Education, Skills and Training amongst others.

Whilst separate rankings exist for each domain, an accumulative overall multiple deprivation measure ranking is also provided. 14 of the 20 most deprived wards are predominantly catholic, including 8 of the most deprived 10 wards The Peace Monitoring Report 2012 made reference to the facts regarding greater catholic levels of deprivation, an enduring feature of northern Irish life, when it reported that “the proportion of people who are in low-income households is much higher among Catholics (26%) than among Protestants (16%).”

The figures outlined above collectively point to a conclusion that, across the range of poverty and deprivation indicators, there is no material basis other than pandering to sectarianism in suggesting that working class protestant communities are losing out to their catholic neighbours, who continue to predominate the range of lists ranking the most deprived communities in the State. (4)

The anarchist alternative

As we enter 2013 it is worth remembering that the Union Jack will continue to fly over Belfast city hall for 17 days of the year despite hundreds of protests and road blockades taking place since mid-December. The flag controversy and cries of 'no surrender' iare the tip of the iceberg illustrating the continuing reality of a sectarian statelet propped up by Westminster which Northern Ireland Tourist Board cannot simply brand away.

In a wider context, the 'flag riots' help to gloss over class conflict providing a useful distraction for an unprecedented austerity programme of privatisation, cuts to public services, workplace/welfare rights which were won for by struggle over the years. The British state with their junior partners at Stormont are plunging working class communities into deeper levels of poverty, deprivation, rising cost of living and job insecurity - continuing the savage neo-liberal agenda of successive governments. Our response needs to be pro-active and aggressive because being right is not enough in a society built on protecting the wealth and privilege of the ruling class.

Quite clearly the future for any sustained working class resistance to these measures across the sectarian divide is quite bleak as long as we remain captive to the politics of fear and scaremongering that is promoted and fostered by those in power for their own selfish and strategic interests.

However there is hope, which does not lie in putting our faith in sectarian politicians and any so-called vanguard. The question we need to ask ourselves is not what flag we want to live under but what type of society do we want. By winning small battles in the workplace and community such as the Visteon workers struggle in 2009 we can make small steps that build confidence, a culture of self-organisation and direct action that can steadily erode what may divide us. Yes, the task is a great one. But of course, we only want the world.

For those of us on the progressive left and wider labour movement it is important that we expose and exacerbate these contradictions from a revolutionary class perspective, in theory and practice, while providing a space to build an alternative movement to the rotten politics of zero-sum which at the end of the day only benefits our common enemy the ruling class.

Anarchists are "proud of being internationalists." We seek "the end of all oppression and of all exploitation," and so aim "to awaken a consciousness of the antagonism of interests between dominators and dominated, between exploiters and workers, and to develop the class struggle inside each country, and the solidarity among all workers across the frontiers, as against any prejudice and any passion of either race or nationality."- Errico Malatesta

First published on WSM website- http://www.wsm.ie/ulster-loyalism-flag-protests-zero-sum-politics%20



10 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by baldurmen on January 10, 2013

Thanks for the post. It's not always easy as a foreigner to these affairs to truly understand what is going on throught the media's screen.

It's also easy to skip these kind of events as "non-progressive" in the never ending flow of information. But after 6 days of rioting... Fuck.


10 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Spikymike on January 10, 2013

I don't think ''progressive'' comes into this flag protest in any way, but I heard some politician on the radio refer to the 'rioting' by mostly young men , as opposed to the more regular organised marches etc, as being a form of ''recreational rioting''. Is there not some truth in this, reflecting the economic and social deprivation of youth whether from the 'republican' or 'loyalist' 'community' enclaves and their relationship to the forces of state repression exacerbated by the present economic crisis??