The Union flag is usually flown on state occasions in municipal buildings throughout Britain. In Belfast, Ireland’s second biggest city, it has for many years flown every day. Every single day. It is part of a general theme in Northern Ireland, where British and royal emblems have for years featured on every wall, building document and uniform, reminding everyone who is in charge.
But when on 3rd December Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the Union Flag to state occasions, hundreds of Loyalists vented their anger at the council, local government buildings, the police and even local politicians. In the weeks that followed offices and police cars have been firebombed, roadblocks have stopped arterial traffic, paramilitary leaders have been organising on the streets and shots have been fired.
Media coverage has focused on the fact that Loyalists are angry about the coming down of the flag and hinted that there were underlying grievances too – though there has been little examination of what these are.
Instead criticism has focused on the disruption to Christmas shopping and the damage it might do to Northern Ireland as a target for inward investment by multinational companies, who might covet Ireland’s natural resources and low paid workforce. But Loyalist anger is not to be scoffed at. And those who hoped to see the protestors disappear after Christmas have been disappointed.
Loyalists are those, mostly working class Unionists, who are actively involved in confrontation with the Catholic population, through demonstrations, paramilitary activity and in opposing any concessions to Irish Nationalism.
Loyalists see the Union with Britain as a means of protecting their cultural heritage. But that heritage is one of support for sectarianism, the denial of rights to Catholics and the maintenance of a Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland that serves British interests.
For these people, the flag is a sacred emblem, signifying their place in the union and reminding Catholics that they are second-class citizens.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought devolution to Northern Ireland. The agreement produced splits within Unionism and Sinn Fein, who emerged as the dominant nationalist party, having capitalised on the new set up, by ingratiating themselves in the establishment, whilst attempting to re-brand it simply by removing symbols of British imperialism.
At the same time demographics have been changing. Northern Ireland’s Catholic population is bigger and more urbanised. Immigration has been felt for the first time in living memory and the geography of segregation has actually increased, preventing the Orange Order – the largest Loyalist organisation – from keeping to the route of some of their triumphant marches.
This, along with the austerity agenda has dismantled old certainties. Unemployment and poverty, protracted recession, together with budget cuts and privatisation have taken a huge toll. Loyalists used to feel part of a huge industrial block when they worked in huge factories, shipyards and docks that connected Antrim and Down with Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow. Their superiority over Catholics in the job and housing market secured their loyalty to Britain even though this meant accepting a lower standard of living than their supposed “fellow-citizens” in Britain.
Those days are long gone. Loyalists feel betrayed by the British industrial complex that once rewarded their loyalty. They feel increasingly isolated as they are subjected to the same attacks as other working class communities. Their leaders can no longer use the oppression of Catholics as means to offer them social superiority.
Seeing the lowering of their flag is another stark reminder that those days are over.
How then can we sympathise with Loyalists who block the streets? They intimidate ordinary people in their own neighbourhoods. They demand a return of “Direct Rule” from Westminster and fantasise about a return to the days when Catholics couldn’t work, vote or get a house.
They attack, slash and burn. Death threats have been made against members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The protestors even held banners that said “Democracy Doesn’t Work” and demand that the symbol of British dominance in Ireland be again hoisted over the city.
But the role of socialists cannot be simply to stand back and condemn. Nor should we voice some theoretical middle-ground slogan aimed at sounding anti-sectarian. Any action which is practically and truthfully anti-sectarian has to start with an understanding that, for all their reactionary ideas, working class Protestants share the same interest as Catholics. And that interest can only be pursued collectively. It’s about class, not creed.
That is not to say we should in any way condone the protests. History teaches us that these riots are only ever a few hours away from a pogrom of a Catholic area or a burnt-out church. But the Protestant working class is not a separate entity from the Catholic one. Whilst the state and the main parties have sought to entrench sectarianism by formalising it, the reality of modern capitalism is at once breaking it down. Grass-roots organisations like trade unions bridge the divide. People are brought together in workplaces, universities and estates and leisure facilities like never before. One of the reasons why the Loyalist anger is so fierce is precisely because, like in the 1960s, sectarian barriers are being broken down in some areas just as they are solidified in others.
The British state cannot promise working class Protestants a fraction of what they can achieve by collective struggle. Ordinary Protestants have far more to gain by uniting with Catholicsagainst the establishment. This is borne out by the fact that the British state and the Protestant middle class have had to build an enormous apparatus of sectarianism to prevent this unity from emerging.
Socialists have been at the forefront of working class organisation and have intervened to build this unity. There has been great success in opposing paramilitary violence when Trade Unionists have come out to protest and brought together workers from all communities.
The British state can only offer Loyalists austerity and sectarianism. A socialist alternative can offer a better quality of life for the vast majority, an end to poverty, sectarianism and conflict. Britain is only interested in a divided Ireland.
In the past year we have seen unrest turn to action on the streets of European cities against austerity. These movements have had obvious targets: the super-rich and the politicians that protect their wealth and power in each respective nation and in Brussels. In other words, they have spontaneously gravitated towards a class-based world view. Many progressive people who would normally support movements like this, in Trade-unions for example, think Ireland is a special case, different from the rest of the world: ‘It’s not possible to build such generalised class unity in Belfast like in Athens’ they say. But Ireland’s history is one of constant change. Presbyterians were the first republican rebels and when the Irish working class was most militant, it was the English working class who came, most heroically to aid them with solidarity.
Irish workers are held back by reactionary ideology, but material reality always force ideas to be challenged if they don’t make sense of ordinary people’s circumstances and if they don’t offer any serious hope of improving their circumstances. The idea that ‘democracy doesn’t work’ and that Irish people should return to being under the whip of the British state has no future, and there will be more than a handful of Protestant workers who will know this to be true.
The people of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, deserve better leadership. The main Unionist party, the DUP, cannot address the underlying cause of bitterness among ordinary Protestants. Its response has been to assuage fears by using its control of other councils to increase flag-flying. Is that all the Unionist leaders can offer their own constituency – another cut of fabric on a building somewhere? Raise all the Union Jacks you want – it won’t stop the austerity agenda. As the old Irish saying goes… “You can’t eat a flag”.