By Jim Slaven
The unionist protests across the Six Counties over the decision of Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days the union flag is flown over City Hall are now in their second month. The most serious trouble has centred on parts of Belfast where the UVF have been orchestrating a campaign of riots and sectarian terror directed at areas such as the Short Strand. While much of the media has ignored or downplayed the seriousness of the rioting (the BBC has insisted on calling them protests not riots) it is worth exploring the significance of recent events.
The catalyst for the latest unionist violence was the democratic decision of Belfast City Council to stop flying the union flag over City Hall every day. Instead councillors voted to fly the union flag only on designated days such as Betty Battenburg’s birthday. This decision merely brought the Council into line with other cities and indeed with Stormont. One fact that seems to have been overlooked in the furore is that Sinn Fein voted in favour of flying the British union flag over Belfast City Hall on the designated days.
So, given it is not the earth shattering decision the rioters are making out, what is really going on? The first thing to say is that I agree with those people who have been pointing out the degree of manipulation of the unionist working class by the UVF and their political group the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). It seems clear that these organisations are intent on using the flag issue to catapult themselves back into political negotiations. Of course they seek a place in negotiations for their own interests not in the interests of the working class communities they are currently wrecking.
At one level this is about the political ambitions of the PUP’s leader Billy Hutchison (who at one time was much lauded by the Scottish Socialist Party) who is seeking to reinvent himself as the leader of Loyalism. To succeed they are attempting to destroy loyalist areas through UVF orchestrated rioting and then step in to claim the credit for putting the place back together again. Of course this will take plenty of state money, which will provide jobs for his cronies, which the UVF hopes in turn will lead to political kudos for Hutchison and the PUP.
However at a deeper level it seems clear there is something else happening in the occupied Six Counties. Ever since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and then the St Andrews Agreement unionist politicians have been quick to claim that the union has been secured. In fact many go further claiming republicanism has been defeated in the process of securing the North’s place within the UK state. So that will be that then or perhaps not?
The political agreements which unionists (and the state) claimed had secured the union have actually exposed the contradictions of the UK state’s occupation of the north of Ireland and the festering contradictions of the historical system. These contradictions, such as sectarianism, class and colonialism and war, are undermining any attempts to build a normal civil society. In fact certain systematic contradictions such as economic disparity and social polarisation have actually increased since the signing of the Agreements and the much vaunted peace process. In other words the objective conditions on the ground show that while for political unionism (and for the state) the union had been secured the ground under their feet has shifted rendering the Six County statelet unreformable.
Sinn Fein’s response to the riots has been instructive of the general political confusion about these riots and the scale of alienation. Councillor Tom Hartley told Belfast City Council that the unionist rioters had forgotten that Sinn Fein had voted for council funding for celebrations of the British monarch’s jubilee and that Martin McGuinness had shook hands with the British monarch. Presumably Tom Hartley’s point was that such initiatives had strengthened the political structures in the Six Counties unaware that it is at that moment of apparent strength that the contradictions are exposed to those outside the political elite.
Once exposed these contradictions highlight the pyrrhic nature of Unionism’s political victory. Sinn Fein’s incorporation into not only British political structures but into a British ideological construct has exposed their gestures as gestures. The strength of the political institutions is accompanied by profound political weakness. Unable to address either the cause of conflict (the UK state’s denial of the Irish people their right to self determination) or the contradictions which flow from the conflict (sectarianism, poverty etc) politicians are left with nothing other than gestures.
All of this comes at a time when the UK state is in a state of constitutional flux. The Scottish referendum has opened a significant second front and the state is trying desperately to manage two very different but connected assaults. The loyalist attempts to bring the flag protest to Scotland was as predictable as it was pathetic. The consciousness of the Scottish people has moved on over the last twenty years. While they may or may not be ready to vote for independence they are certainly not about to wrap themselves in the union jack.
However it raises the spectre of loyalism and Orangeism over the referendum campaign. How these unionist forces will be deployed will be one of the features which comes into play as the referendum approaches. The current Nationalist strategy of pandering to the most reactionary elements of Scottish society, whether it be over keeping the sectarian monarch, backing British militarism, retaining the union flag and the British pound is doomed to fail. Not only is it doomed to fail it is dangerous.
Those of us who support independence need to make an aspirational case for independence and part of that must be a commitment to eradicate sectarianism and anti Irish racism. This cannot be done without challenging the Orange Order and sectarian culture which exists in parts of Scottish society. It also means developing an analysis of the UK state which recognises the role bigotry and race played in the state’s formation of, and reproduction of, hierarchies.The article was originally written for the blog Emancipation & Liberation and can be view here.