Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, very few news bulletins concerning Northern Ireland have made it onto the main British news agenda. Most of those that have in fact seeped through over the past 15 years have been off in colour and have seemed to be more concerned to profile an ongoing tribal violence in a “business-as-usual” style to give the audience what they expect.
A recent series of news reports maintained this narrative: Orange Order loyalist protesters battling with police in streets of Belfast where the annual Orange Parade had been forbidden to march due to safety concerns of both nationalist community residents, and the parade attendees.
This heavy breaded “here-we-go-again” filling fails to analyse just what exactly is happening in Belfast and the surrounding towns of Ulster’s north-eastern six counties. What is the rationale behind such violent protests which lasted several nights and counted among their casualties dozens of police officers and DUP MP Nigel Dodds; himself a member of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland? Why do violent outbursts between different sections of Northern Irish society continue on a regular basis?
In their recent study of social interaction patterns in Belfast, Dr Lisa Smyth and Martina McKnight of Queen’s University analysed the experience of Belfast mothers in three common situations: walking, shopping and playing. The findings of “Maternal Situations: sectarianism and civility in a divided city” reveal that a culture of non-engagement has arisen whereby if you do not recognise another woman (and her children) in any given public situation, then her presence is only acknowledged if it needs to be negotiated physically.
Further on in the study of these 6,000 women, anecdotal evidence is given regarding men venturing into alternatively cultured community areas only when they are wearing a work-uniform, and therefore qualified with ‘an excuse’ for their presence as a stranger.
These points suggest that the news bulletins we have witnessed in the last 15 years depicting rioting residents of one background or the other are not entirely vacuous; the conditions for hidden, but very real social tension clearly still exists. This does not suggest however that the news bulletins have been accurate or even remotely representative of the temporal and social conditions that give rise to such mass violent action.
A number of experiential observations can be derived from the ongoing social discord in Northern Ireland. Firstly, the British Press fail abysmally at analysing the relations of Northern Irish society. In addition, British parliamentary members make very little comment on mass social conflict in Northern Ireland – far less than they do on similar incidences of racial tension in England, or indeed of the youth riots of 2011. Finally, the British public have deferred to the position termed by Adam Curtis as “Oh-Dearism”; tut-tutting the images and casual mainstream discourse, without spending a single critical moment trying to understand what is happening in another part of, what is for now, the same United Kingdom.
It would seem that in modern insular Britain, the Irish Sea serves as a defining feature of Ireland’s foreign status. But this has not always been the case, and it is far from being the case in the west of Scotland, and indeed in the city of Liverpool. In these areas specifically, the activities and events of Northern Ireland are echoed in definite, if much fainter detail.
Let us focus on the source of the issue then by first of all identifying it. The most common mistake to make when considering Northern Ireland is that religion is the cause of all the trouble. This is of course a gross misnomer: religion, as ever in the case of ostensible religious conflict, is naught but the rhetorical-cultural vehicle of a hidden ideological agenda belonging to protagonist parties from within the ruling class.
Ireland has for centuries been held at the mercy of religious misappropriation; usually at the behest of whoever is governing England at the time. What we witness today is the generational mutation of perpetual mass-abuse of a society by an economically more advanced and carnivorous bourgeoisie; and clearly its toxicity is as potent as ever. Ultimately however, the problem lies not with religion, but rather a legacy of British imperialism. Class struggles exist in Northern Ireland as much as the rest of the UK, but what causes one section of society to turn against another is not simply a sentiment of ‘worker versus boss’ nor Catholic versus Protestant, but consequential of a historical and well-documented tactic of imperialists used to maintain power.
The primary instinct of the hungry ruler is to divide-and-conquer. It is most vehemently implemented whenever imperialist and bourgeois power is threatened. In Scotland there were the Clearances of the 17th and 18th century, defined correctly in modern terms as genocide, and directed by design at the Scottish Gaeltacht; a clan-based society bonded in the most part by blood or faith, or most commonly both. In Ireland the Plantations served a similar purpose whereby the Gaelic culture was undermined and outlawed, and Protestant Lowland Scots as well as English noblemen were planted as landlords in place of fled, dead or imprisoned Roman Catholic predecessors.
Religion was used an incentive to the incoming landlords, to insure against their new subjects and insure against rebellion. These sanctions met the preferred conditions of the new (Protestant) Hanoverian order that had replaced the (predominantly Roman Catholic) Stewarts as rulers of what would soon be the United Kingdom – a usurping that was, by modern terms at least, nothing short of a bourgeois coup d’état.
Realising the divisive effects of religion on human relations in a post-Reformation period, the two ruling parties of the new United Kingdom, the crown and the state, began to firmly entrench themselves in high sectarian culture: anti-Roman Catholicism and anti-Semitism being the two main practises.
From a psychological perspective this is a Machiavellian device, and indeed there is virtually no difference between these 200 year old hegemonic tactics, and the modern equivalent that vilifies immigrants and benefit claimants: it keeps the masses preoccupied at odds with one another, whilst at the same time excluding any possibility of parallel cultural strata from forming by keeping their religion, class or ethnicity culturally (and often legally) suppressed.
Despite these aristocratic sanctions, the Irish Enlightenment produced in noble Protestantism the cause for Roman Catholic emancipation. Revolutionary Wolfe Tone, who had become involved with Robespierre in post-Revolution Paris, and was famously recognised as one of Thomas Paine’s most vociferous disciples, formed the Society of the United Irishmen to form a political union between Roman Catholics and Protestants. This large and successful movement quickly developed into a revolutionary army.
In fact, the principles of the French Revolution were being eagerly embraced all across Ireland in the late 1700s; most especially among the Presbyterians of Ulster whose aims were also for Roman Catholic emancipation and severance from the English crown. This is a far cry from what many in the associated locales of the British Isles would identify with more contemporary Ulster Presbyterian rhetoric.
How might an extremely alarmed British ruling class respond to such urgent threat to their power-base in Ireland? What lessons had they learned from their genocidal projects of the last 100 years?
They learned that religious fervor scorched the temperament of the disenfranchised masses. Simple, but appalling sabotage of any progressive project was almost assured to ruin it.
The mostly Protestant “Peep O’Day Boys” and the Roman Catholic “Defenders” were two groups existing in Armagh outside of the United Irishmen, who had a history of clashing over various sectarian issues. Agents of the aristocracy were charged with infiltrating these groups, and many others including the newly formed (Protestant) Orange Order (originally established to campaign for more rented land to be made available, and NOT for any explicit religious end), and conflagrating relations further until tensions grew to the point of severely undermining the comradeship of Wolfe Tone’s revolution.
These manipulations of Irish society by the landed bourgeoisie soon turned into naturalised social traditions and developed into the outright sectarian culture that the capitalist bourgeoisie was able to foster and perpetuate for its own ends in the north of Ireland throughout the 1800s.
One full century after Wolfe Tone’s failed revolution, the trade union movement once again sought to unite Protestant and Roman Catholic against the tyranny of the bourgeoisie. Celebrated names like Connolly and Larkin took to professing solidarity and internationalism in the name of a socialist workers republic. Again, as before, unity of the Irish proletariat threatened bourgeois interests – this time the galvanised and invincible capitalist class whose profit was paramount above all other principle – even human life. Again, as before, sectarian incitement was the method of division. The Dublin Unionist Lord Carson infamously “played the Orange card” to Belfast Protestants in response to the growing Home Rule movement (of which Connolly and Larkin were part of the left wing), threatening them with the vision of massacring Roman Catholic hordes.
The resulting Ulster Volunteer Force has gone down in infamy as the reactionary vanguard of Protestant Loyalism in Northern Ireland, and its influence there is still prevalent today.
The Irish Republican Army, established as the revolutionary vanguard, and its fragmentary representations, became synonymous with the Roman Catholic struggle for civil rights in the north of Ireland despite its strict non-sectarian roots.
As the Troubles spawned from one nightmare to another in the 1970s, amidst a very real war between Republican revolutionaries and the British state, communities polarised to their most extreme alignments; and it is the children and grandchildren of this social holocaust that are the protagonists in such scenes as we have seen in Belfast in July 2013; after all, a society divided is a society ruled.
So now we can see clearly the hands that have been at play in the very complex conditioning that presents us with the theatre of northern Irish society. It is thus clear that sectarianism is far from borne out of innate tribal warring, but rather has been confected by a bourgeoisie recognising that the flavour of division in the north of Ireland is religion.
In view of this then, how can the actual scenes and events of the weekend of 13th July 2013 in Belfast be analysed? Evidently what we witness is the continued foul orchestration of proletarian discontent into blaming “the other”. It is the same as in Bradford as in Belfast: find the weak spot, and poke it.
For too long the different sections in Northern Irish society – the Catholics, Protestants, Nationalists, Republicans, Unionists and Loyalists have been pitted against one another by the British state. Oppression is rife in Northern Ireland.
These “Loyalist” (or indeed “Nationalist”) protestors can not help but become emotionally integrated into scenarios which have been rehearsed and practiced by the British state – and other ruling classes -and staged just so, so that their fears, angst, and cooked up hatred can become manifest, live, and powerful. It has become their immediate culture: this is no slight thing that a human can simply brush off without the assistance of intense intervention. The British state have, for their own intents and purposes, divided a country, communities and families for nothing less than imperialist gain.
The tension that exists between the loyalist and nationalist sections of Northern Ireland (as well as between Catholic and Protestant), and the violence, has been orchestrated by and for the British state. The enemies of nationalists are not loyalists, nor vice versa, but the British state. Both groups have been oppressed, with Catholics and Nationalists/Republicans more so. For centuries the whole of Ireland has been at the mercy of the British state and invading forces. When we see violence, conflict and protests in Northern Ireland we must look deeper than nationalist versus loyalist. We must see the history behind the conflict and realise that the conflict does not stem from ordinary people, but from the British state and the bloodshed reaped on their behalf
The reward for the imperialist British state is invisibility, and thus the freedom to continue exploiting men, women, and resource alike for their insatiable lust for money, status, and power. For there to be peace in Northern Ireland, the fight for the British state to retreat must continue.