We are pleased to publish another letter from a reader in Ireland. Also on this website is an earlier letter from the same reader, The Saville Report on the Bloody Sunday Massacre.
The most intense rioting seen in the British occupied North of Ireland in over a decade erupted in a number of Catholic ghettos in response to provocative Protestant supremacist parades marking the 12th of July. Genuine working-class revolutionaries are not indifferent to these conflicts, but rather stand with the oppressed Catholic workers and youth against the loyalists and the British imperialist state that backs them. As the economic crisis continues to take its toll on living standards and frustration rises among both Catholic and Protestant workers in the North, further loyalist parades threaten to spark more unrest. It is therefore crucial that we draw correct conclusions from these most recent riots so that revolutionaries can show how the struggle against Protestant supremacy in the North can advance the aim of uniting workers across the sectarian divide and in a struggle against imperialist capitalism that exploits all.
The 12th of July is celebrated by Protestant supremacist or “loyalist” organisations such as the Orange Order, as the date of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 at which the Protestant forces of Dutch-born William of Orange defeated the Catholic forces of King James II of England. This and other victories for “King Billy” led to a strengthening of the Penal Laws in Ireland which severely restricted the rights of Catholics, Presbyterians and all non-Anglicans. It also ensured political dominance and economic privilege for those loyal to the British state for centuries to come.
There have been numerous modifications to this trend since then which have been dictated by the needs of British imperialism at any given time or have come about as a result of the pressure of popular struggles. The most recent of these ‘compromises’ was the Good Friday Agreement (GFA – so named because it was signed on Good Friday, 1998). The GFA re-established a local administration at Stormont castle, the historic seat of Protestant rule in the North of Ireland, based upon a system of “forced coalition” between loyalist and nationalist political parties. Besides institutionalising sectarianism and a “neo-liberal” economic agenda set by London, other features of this reactionary agreement include the abolition of the rights of political prisoners, the demand that all paramilitaries disband and that they surrender their arsenals of weaponry.
Despite these modifications the trend of Protestant or loyalist “ascendancy” nevertheless continues to this day in the North of Ireland and forms the material basis for triumphalist displays by loyalist reactionaries such as those witnessed this year in Ardoyne, a predominately Catholic area in Belfast city. In many ways Ardoyne is typical of Catholic ghettos in the North of Ireland; characterised by crippling poverty, a disproportionate level of unemployment, inadequate access to essential services and so forth. As a report published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) at the end of May this year demonstrated, the overwhelming majority of the most deprived communities in the North of Ireland have a population of 75% or more of people “from a Catholic community background.” Coupled with some of the worst living conditions in Western Europe is the constant threat posed by loyalist gangs who often attack Catholic homes, small businesses and severely injure and occasionally murder individual Catholics.
It was effectively in celebration of this state of affairs that the Orange Order planned to march through Ardoyne. In response to this plan, the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC) petitioned to have the march re-routed away from historically Catholic areas and presented the results of a survey showing that over 1,000 households in the immediate vicinity of the route of the march were opposed to it going ahead. Yet the talking shop that is the Parades Commission gave the Protestant supremacists the green light to go ahead with their parade regardless. In the face of this provocation, GARC organized a peaceful protest of which the socialist Republican group éirígí was, to its credit, a particularly prominent supporter where many other socialist groups failed to take a stand.
On the day of the parade protesters gathered at a major intersection on the parade route through Ardoyne, linked arms and sat down, wearing t-shirts declaring their aim of “Peaceful Protest” and holding signs declaring themselves “Residents, Not Dissidents.” But hundreds of riot police from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had also mobilized and they responded with great violence. When they failed in their attempts to move the protesters in order to let the parade through, they began firing (by their own admission) some 70 plastic bullet rounds into the crowd and from armored vehicles even targeted women and young children with water cannons.
State terror so blatantly in service of sectarianism was inevitably going to meet with a more robust response in an area with a long history of resistance to such despicable tactics. This response, as elsewhere in the North of Ireland, was provided by local working class youth who fought the police with stones and what homemade weaponry they could muster and whose courage in opposing the state and loyalist reactionaries at great risk to their own personal safety should be saluted. It is certainly regrettable that the youths’ lack of organization and leadership beyond some (alleged) orchestration by “dissident Republicans” meant that their struggle could not take more organized, powerful and politically targeted forms than their violent resistance. But the rioting in Ardoyne should nevertheless remain an inspiration to genuine revolutionaries everywhere.
Bourgeois politicians and media have attempted to portray the scenes of young people fighting pitched street battles with riot police in Ardoyne as an aberration and an attack by “sinister elements” on the “progress” supposedly delivered by the GFA. Sinn Féin representatives in particular have gone out of their way to condemn the rioters and to establish a link between the outbreak of violence and “dissident Republicans.” This betrayal of communities they claim to represent and ostracizing of those whom they would have once defended reflects their growing desperation as their grip on such communities is beginning to slip. The scale of the recent rioting is certainly no longer the norm in the North of Ireland, but that is not to say that such incidents are entirely unexpected. So-called “dissident Republicans” have long been effective scapegoats for all the ills that beset the floundering “peace agreement,” but it is clear that such lies are now beginning to wear thin.
Not all of the mud flung the way of the rioters has come from the usual quarters. Some self-proclaimed revolutionaries, deciding that such explosions of rage by the working class and oppressed do not fit their narrow economistic and opportunistic approach to politics, have jumped on board the hysterical bandwagon. A glaring example is that of the Socialist Party (SP):
The rioting was indefensible and only leads to further misery and increased sectarian tension.
So claims Ciaran Mulholland in an article featured on the SP’s website. He goes on to say:
Despite being a right-wing, sectarian 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 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.
In other words, the reformist Taafeites of the SP have a right to bury their heads in the sand for fear of alienating backward sections of the working class, specifically loyalists.
The SP’s strategy of economism – refusing to stand against Protestant supremacists like the Orange Order and instead preaching an abstract ideal of working-class unity – will inevitably fail. Working-class unity cannot be forged between Catholic and Protestant workers by simply ignoring what currently divides them. Whether the SP cares to admit it or not, the reality is that Protestant workers benefit from the oppression of the Catholic community and the denial of the democratic rights of Irish people in general by British imperialism and its subordinates both North and South of the Irish border. The correct method for winning Protestant or even ostensibly loyalist workers to the cause of socialist revolution is to clearly explain to them that while they enjoy a relative privilege at the expense of their Catholic or nationalist brothers and sisters, they are also ensnared by a system that exploits them and indeed keeps many of them living in impoverished conditions also. The SP’s position that the sectarian forces on both sides are on an even keel negates the fact that one side has the backing of the state and behind that state lays an imperialist power.
Others on the left have fared better with the Cliffite Socialist Workers Party (SWP) rightly declaring itself on the side of those fighting the loyalists and the PSNI and correctly attacking Sinn Féin for their capitulation to the Orange Order. However that brave statement was made on their website – the SWP has thus far failed to account for why it did not mobilize its forces to join the protest against the Orange Order march that attempted to pass through Ardoyne or why it did not stand shoulder to shoulder with other working class communities affected by events surrounding the 12th of July.
The reality is that the SWP has abstained from such struggles for fear of promoting sectarianism, and like the CWI, they have contented themselves with an economism that promises avoidance of such political disputes and emphasis on workers’ “bread and butter” concerns as the road to working-class unity. Indeed in writing about the struggle in Ardoyne, the SWP added a pacifist perspective on the legacy of “The Troubles” in a lame attempt to counter the arguments of Irish Republicans still engaged in armed actions:
If the last thirty years has taught us anything, it should be those who promote the armed struggle turn into establishment politicians a decade or so later.
No, those who promoted armed struggle only to capitulate to imperialism and become establishment politicians did not do so because of the military means of struggle that they once proposed, but because they always pursued the nationalist aims of the Catholic bourgeoisie and middle class and not the revolutionary socialist interests of the working class. Indeed genuine revolutionaries know that the capitalist state will give the working class no choice but to defend itself, arms in hand, and pacifist sentiment like this expressed by the SWP can only serve to hold back the most radical, class-conscious workers from preparing for that.
What is lacking is a revolutionary perspective and an organisation that can carry forward a programme that can unite the working class en route to the socialist revolution. Such a perspective being Trotskyist, that is to say genuinely Marxist, must uphold the right of the oppressed to self-defence, be it against the state, reactionaries or both (as in the case of the North of Ireland). Whether such defence requires the working class or oppressed to arm themselves depends on specific conditions, but revolutionaries should never shy away from or try to conceal the fact that the masses will ultimately have to be armed in the course of the revolution as severe counterrevolutionary violence is inevitable.
While addressing the divisions fostered by capitalism in this epoch of decay, revolutionaries must also advance positions that can enhance working class unity. Obvious examples exist in the current context of the “Great Recession.” Not only should we support workers struggling to defend their living conditions but we must also call for job creation and the expansion of beneficial social programs. In the case of the North and South of Ireland this translates as a call for a general strike to halt cutbacks and other assaults on the working class and to force a retreat on the part of the bourgeoisie. A general strike would also demonstrate the power of the mobilized working class; the greatest force on Earth!
Such an approach combined with the fight against threats like the Stormont administration’s Public Assemblies Bill, which under the auspices of dealing with disputes relating to the loyalist marching season would virtually remove the right of trade unions and political organisations to hold demonstrations or otherwise congregate publicly, along with the unequivocal demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners should be integral to the programme of a much-needed revolutionary organization in Ireland.
August 6, 2010
1. In connection with the North of Ireland, the term “loyalist” refers to people, essentially from a Protestant religious background, who are militantly in favor of union with Great Britain and are thus “loyal” to the British Crown.
2. The term “sectarian” is used here to refer to political conflicts based on religious identifications and in the North of Ireland refers to struggles based on the Protestant-Catholic divide.
5. The Parades Commission was set up by the Good Friday Agreement with the supposed responsibility of “regulating” such “contentious” parades but typically encourages such sectarian fanfare as the Orange Order’s 12th of July celebration.
6. éirígí’s website can be found at www.eirigi.org .
7. The term “dissidents” is used to describe several organizations and factions that have broken away from Sinn Féin and the IRA over the years and whom the capitalist media is constantly pointing to as wanting to bring back the violence of the years after the late 1960s that are known as “The Troubles.”
8. Sinn Féin is the bourgeois nationalist party that has long held sway over the nationalist community in the North of Ireland. Today it participates in the power-sharing Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is dominated by the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party.
9. Irish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
11. The Irish section of the International Socialist Tendency, whose website can be found at www.swp.ie .