By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)
Last Saturday night the unionists of Belfast treated us to an evening of truly surreal proportions. Outside City Hall, thousands waving Union Jacks were part of a live BBC broadcast of the last night of the proms. They sang lustily. Donegal Square echoed to Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.
Meanwhile, not a mile away in North Belfast others had also hoisted the Union Jack and were aiming automatic gunfire and blast bombs at their Queen’s soldiers. Imperial sunsets are inevitably bizarre but who could have scripted this one?
To readers of this column, the loyalist riots in Belfast will have come as no surprise. The endemic political and social crisis in the loyalist heartlands is something we were considering long before it finally made last week’s headlines. Here is a community in self-destruction mode. A community whose leaders seem utterly incapable of understanding the new political realities in the North.
The imposition of equality of citizenship on the old colony makes for painful learning; unionism is fast running out of people to blame for its own collapse into sectarian anarchy.
As the smoke cleared across North Belfast, the bombast of rhetoric about law and order and paramilitarism and arms and violence we have been hearing for years from political unionism emerged in a whole new subtext.
In the face of the attempted murder of police officers, widespread anarchy, robbery, intimidation, arson, looting and carjacking, not a single unionist political leader could bring himself to utter a single word of condemnation. The Orange Order press conference that followed the riots left one gasping at a display of utter hypocrisy.
For many years, some of us have known about the deeply dysfunctional political and sectarian psychosis at the heart of loyalism. Perhaps the only consolation to emerge from last weekend’s performance is that the rest of the world now knows it as well. And, as has been his wont for years, the moment the reality of Paisleyism’s panaceas emerged in its true colours on the streets, the Big Man was nowhere to be seen or heard.
It is important to understand just how different this riot was from the traditional Belfast riot scenarios in order to understand the dimensions of the crisis that unionism is now facing.
Days before the march erupted on the Springfield road, a source in Belfast told me the bush telegraph was indicating that loyalist paramilitaries would use the parade ban to provoke a major confrontation. Their preparations were already well advanced and their rationale was two-fold.
First, under increasing pressure in their own communities due to sustained criminality they needed a device to reemerge as “protectors’’ in those communities. Second, and most remarkably, they are seemingly deeply disturbed by the notion of IRA weapons decommissioning.
Over and beyond the wider politics of the North, the self-defence role of the IRA in Catholic communities has been understood for many decades. Such was the implicit sectarian nature of partition, the lives of front-line Catholic communities - particularly in Belfast - have always been held hostage to fortune by loyalism. Any perceived change in the wider political status of the Catholic community and they were liable to get it in the neck. It was precisely this historical, Pavlovian response in 1969 that induced the birth of the Provisional IRA.
Last weekend was, at one level, an exploration by loyalist paramilitarism into new post-IRA ghetto politics. Would the PSNI be able to protect nationalist areas, and, equally, might a sustained attack shake or undermine the new IRA position?
The PSNI also was well aware of the new subtext and perhaps this goes some way to explaining the Orange leaders’ accusations of heavy-handed police tactics. Importantly, given the reality of ghetto politics in the North, the fact that the PSNI was so effective in a post-IRA ghetto confrontation is one of the few consolations to come out of the battlefield.
What was also singularly different about this riot was the careful planning and the extent to which violently anti-social elements in the loyalist communities used it as a cover for their own criminality. The widespread incidents of armed robbery, the removal of a cash machine, the looting of shops and even the targeting of carefully selected business premises - perhaps with a view to subsequent loyalist paramilitary business - suggests that this wasn’t just a spontaneous reaction to a march ban.
Perhaps the most significant implication for unionism in the long run was the signals from their heartlands last weekend that the paramilitary gangsterism now dominant in these communities had eclipsed elected political representatives.
Now the unionist political obsession with an IRA on ceasefire over the last decade, to the exclusion of any consideration of the threat of loyalist paramilitarism, has exploded in their faces. Who couldn’t argue now that loyalist paramilitaries actually represent the greatest threat to their own communities?
In the face of this eruption of sectarian fury and civil anarchy, the DUP and UUP now look like players without a plot. From the beginnings of the peace process, their agenda was to resist any attempt at fundamental change in the hope that, sooner or later, the republican agenda would collapse under the weight of its paramilitarism.
Now, to their utter dismay, that hasn’t happened and with IRA decommissioning. about to utterly change the face of Northern politics, political unionism is up the creek without a paddle. They can, of course, continue to refuse to come on board politically, but perhaps some may even consider the consequences of that decision, given the social crisis their own communities face.
With its vicious sectarianism, its educational and financial failure and its dysfunctional inability to seek an objective critique of its crisis, heartland unionism is now most reminiscent of an American white-trash trailer-park. Loyalism is now synonymous with poverty, dysfunctionality and social breakdown.
Somebody has to do something to save these people from the hellish logic of their own prejudices. It clearly isn’t going to be political unionism as currently constituted.