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Peter Hadden

Sectarian agendas at play

(November 2008)

From The Socialist, November 2008.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the end the contentious Royal Irish Regiment parade through the centre of Belfast passed off relatively peacefully. Republican protestors and loyalist counter protestors were kept apart by the biggest security operation since Drumcree.

Apart from a few skirmishes when loyalists came within yards of the Sinn Fein march there was little trouble on the day. Nonetheless the weeks of tension in the build-up, and the crowds that did turn out on both sides, were a clear reminder that, a decade and a half on from the paramilitary ceasefires, not a great deal has changed in Northern Ireland.

Despite the claims of some of the organisers, the one thing these protests were not about was the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Opposition to these wars, most especially to the war for oil in Iraq, cuts across the sectarian divide. The big anti-war demonstrations have drawn support from both communities. There is also opposition to these wars among the soldiers and the families of the soldiers who have served there.

The 2 November protests and counter protests were not about these wars – they were about whipping up sectarian division at home. When unionist politicians on Belfast City Council made the original proposal to have a march and civic reception for the returning troops, they were well aware of the backlash this would provoke.

Sinn Fein, in calling a counter demonstration, made sure from the outset that this would be a sectarian mobilisation. While condemning the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan their main complaint was that allowing the RIR to parade was an “affront to nationalists” given the sectarian history of that regiment.

That the RIR and its forerunner, the UDR, operated in a sectarian manner is beyond question. Sections – at the very least – of these regiments actively colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in the assassination of Catholics.

But so did the RUC or – again at the very least – sections of the RUC. Yet Sinn Fein is now signed up to co-operate with the PSNI, which is little more than the RUC under a new badge and title. If there is one thing that the sectarian forces on both sides are adept at doing, it is taking genuinely felt grievances and emotions on such issues and giving them a sectarian twist. This is precisely what they did in the build up to 2 November.

For the major political parties this was an exercise in “divide and rule” aimed at diverting attention away from what their ministers are doing – or not doing – in the Assembly. The Northern Ireland Executive has now been in a state of suspended animation for over four months, unable to meet since June. Meanwhile working class people are being hit by the effects of the credit crunch and recession on the one side and the cuts being carried out by the Assembly on the other.

There is a growing mood of disillusionment and anger at the failure of the power sharing administration to deliver on anything. In using the RIR parade to switch the focus of attention away from all this and onto their sectarian political home ground, the main parties have shown us all why a peace process with them in charge will never succeed.

The DUP and Sinn Fein may overcome their present differences and re-establish the Executive. If and when they do, they will face the on-going problem of how to hold onto a working class support base, that is increasingly alienated by their right wing policies.

Their most likely response, as in the last few weeks, will be to whip up sectarianism, especially whenever elections approach. But in stoking up sectarianism, they face the constant risk that they will be outflanked by the very sectarian forces they helped unleash. For Sinn Fein there is the danger that dissident republican groups, like éirigí, will emerge as a challenge. Sinn Fein went ahead with their protest in part to prevent republicans attending a rival protest organised by éirigí,

The DUP also have to look over their shoulders. If they move too far to accommodate Sinn Fein they run the risk of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), or some similar group, eating into their electoral base.

What happened in the past few weeks is a warning to the working class movement. On the one side the economic crisis, together with the right wing social and economic programme being jointly pursued by Sinn Fein and the DUP, creates an opportunity to build a united class movement of Catholic and Protestant workers. But, on the other, it creates the danger that, in the absence of such a movement, sectarian forces will emerge to fill the vacuum that will open in working class areas.

November 2 should be a wake up call to the trade union and working class movement. A mass party that can represent the united interests of working class communities is urgently needed.

[This is an edited version of an article available on]

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