By John McAnulty
A number of explanations have been put forward for the sustained outbreak of rioting across the North of Ireland following the Orange marches. It was caused by republican dissidents, by “outsiders” or was a form of recreation among youth.
All these explanations are linked by their implausibility. The nearest thing to an explanation came from a police chief, who criticised the long term political inaction of the DUP-Sinn Fein administration in the run up to the “12th” and was promptly silenced.
The most hysterical commentaries have spoken of political collapse and a return to open conflict. This is clearly not the case. Only months ago the nationalist electorate voted support for the settlement, even against a background of conflict and corruption within the local administration.
Two things have changed. A minority of working class nationalist youth are rejecting the settlement. At the same time support for Sinn Fein, while still widespread, has become a great deal fainter and more reluctant and the movement no longer has the firm control of the streets they once had.
As with many things, to understand it we must take the TV cameras and swing them around. What we saw in the initial Belfast riot was a mob attacking the police (it had initially been a confrontation between unionist and nationalist youth but, as is traditional in the North, the loyalists melt away leaving the police as surrogates).
The view behind the camera shows a bonfire towering into the sky. It is decorated with taunts aimed at a local gang of nationalist youths. It taunts a named young nationalist seriously injured by a plastic bullet (a standard feature of loyalist interface bonfires is to celebrate death or injury to individual named Catholics). An Irish tricolour and a papal flag are perched on the top for burning. To one side flies the flag of the UVF, guilty of countless sectarian murders.
The loyalists spark the conflict but the battle is fought out between the state and the nationalist establishment on one hand and the nationalist youth and remaining small republican groups on the other. The youth reject a new society that has delivered nothing to the working class and which requires an annual ritual involving intimidation and humiliation. As one young Ardoyne nationalist remarked bitterly: “nothing has changed. We are still second class citizens in our own country.”
In response Sinn Fein and the state offer a reformism all the more contaminated by being empty of content. They cannot promise a future free of sectarianism - after all, the whole basis of the new society is the continuation of sectarianism. Rather they offer a future where the more blatant manifestations of sectarianism are given a facelift and airbrushed into the background.
One element of the revolt is the continuing failure of that strategy. A good example is the Broadway bonfire at the centre of the riot and a sister bonfire which, unbelievably, is built alongside the entrance to a major hospital. The loyalist groups involved were in receipt of public money. The money paid for boozy parties and for loyalist bunting. In return the loyalists agreed to join a community makeover that would gradually see them remove all the paraphernalia of direct sectarian jibes and change bonfires to smaller and more sedate beacons. Having collected the money the loyalists withdrew from the scheme. In any case the plan would have had no effect on other traditional activities such as the mini-pogrom in the preceding weeks that saw a Catholic woman and a number of foreign nationals assaulted and forced out of their homes in the village area.
If the rebranding of the festival of hate as Orangefest is going badly at local level, things are no better on a wider scale. Re-establishing the local administration at the Hillsborough talks in February involved further concessions by Sinn Fein on marches. The deal, hammered out with leading DUP figures who were also leading Orangemen, involved the abolition of the discredited Parades Commission and draconian laws that would have effectively abolished the right to demonstrate for trade union and civil rights organisations. The Orangemen would have been free to march, with a consultation mechanism that would have involved nationalist residents but not have given them a power of veto. The Orange Order have now said no to a deal their own leaders negotiated, bringing the deal crashing down.
Understanding why they said no brings us to the heart of the contradiction in the drive to construct a cosmetic Orangeism. The 12th is a reactionary saturnalia designed to proclaim sectarian rule. For one day the lower orders in the unionist hierarchy, supervised by their betters, rule the roost. The direct provocation of Catholics that occurs is well known. What is less well known is the minor elements. Anyone who walks across the road in a gap in the main parades is taking their life in their hands. None of the local laws or bylaws apply to the siting or construction of bonfires. The police do not remove sectarian emblems even when clearly designed as intimidation. When homes are put at risk by bonfires the fire brigade hose the homes, not the bonfires.
This is the background to the Orange rejection of the latest plan. The 12th is the day they declare themselves master. A requirement that they address the underpeople they are marching over reduces the absolute declaration of supremacy. At heart the 12th remains the 12th, not the illusion of a folksy Orangefest.
There is no doubt that the present crisis can be overcome, but it will be overcome by Sinn Fein making further concessions to Orangeism - a leading spokesman has already indicated their willingness to do so. If their ability to moderate demonstrations of sectarian triumphalism is limited there is only one road to stability. The nationalist workers must apathetically concede and kow-tow to Orangeism. The role of Sinn Fein then becomes clear. Their role is to police the nationalists and suppress demonstrations of opposition.
In the Ardoyne Sinn Fein has for years played the card of hypocrisy. Their activists staged quiet and ineffectual protests while at the same time collaborating with the police and loyalist groups and attempting to force nationalist youth off the streets. Now local militants have taken things into their own hands and Sinn Fein were then forced to mobilize their own activists to physically force the youth from the streets.
There has been a wave of condemnation of the rioters, with claims that they are drawing the North back into full-scale conflict. Yet the current pattern of rioting belongs, not to the troubles, but to the “normal” sectarian society that went before, when periodic outbreaks of rioting around the 12th were commonplace.
When the initial peace deal was introduced it had mass support. It still has mass acceptance, but popular belief that it would lead to the decay of sectarianism have proved false. The opposite has been the case, with a steady rise in sectarian and racist incidents and growing evidence of the impunity of the loyalist groups. The great danger now is a mass apathy that accepts this poisonous society as fixed in stone.
From that perspective the anger of the rioters is entirely justified, but the rioting offers no way out. The first steps in building a resistance is to put forward an alternative. We must demand a secular, non-sectarian and democratic society. That society will inevitably be a socialist society. The instrument for building that society will be the Irish working class and it is in the name of the working class that we should assert our hatred of sectarianism and target not just the Loyal Orders and the police, but all the clerical, political and trade union leaderships willing to quietly endorse the carnival of reaction in the North.
The greatest target of all, of course, is the power that set out in its own interests deliberately to construct and maintain the current society - the power of the British state, of British imperialism.