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Organise self-defence against loyalist flag riots

The task of the day is to organise citizens’ defence committees to defend the Short Strand and Catholic communities, says Bernie McAdam. These could then become the basis of a political alternative to the government’s cuts programme and the continuing repression

After seven weeks of daily loyalist protests and riots, the clashes show no sign of abating. Belfast City Council’s decision to restrict flying the Union Jack to 17 days was first opposed by the mainstream Unionist parties. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) whipped up the protests, which have not been massive but turned violent very quickly.

Loyalists attacked and breached Belfast City Hall, trashed Alliance Party premises and issued death threats, and clashed with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). As loyalists made their way back from the protests to East Belfast they repeatedly attacked the isolated nationalist enclave of the Short Strand. On 14 January they petrol bombed St Matthews chapel where special needs children were meeting.

Even Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness, who has made his peace with the sectarian PSNI, was forced to admit “inadequate protection” of the Short Strand. The police have also been remarkably tolerant of countless loyalist roadblocks, even those with small numbers of protesters.

The PSNI never shows such leniency when dealing with nationalist mobilisations. In fact only days into the New Year police raided homes in the Ardoyne, issuing cautions to nationalist residents for ‘observing’ Orange parades going through their areas!

Loyalist claims

Loyalists claim that the nationalist community is getting all the benefits of the peace process. They moan that re-routing their parades, not flying their flag as often and sharing government with Sinn Fein all mean that they are culturally discriminated against. Loyalist ‘leader’ Willie Frazer even complained that Aer Lingus planes deliberately flying low to annoy loyalist protesters.

It is not as if the council has banned flying the Union Jack. It will still fly over City Hall and these flags fly in their hundreds in every loyalist estate all year round, where even the kerbs are painted red, white and blue. Even though some Orange parades have been re-routed away from nationalist areas, other parades still march in areas like the Ardoyne every year.

Are nationalists being preferentially treated? This claim is a bit rich given the historic discrimination against Catholics for which the six-county state is infamous and which underpinned the anti-Unionist rebellion of the 70s and 80s.

The Peace Monitoring Report 2012 claims that on every indicator of deprivation the proportion of Catholics is higher than Protestants. The proportion of people in low-income households is much higher among Catholics (26 per cent) than among Protestants (16 per cent). The Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency (NISRA) figures show that eight of the 10 most deprived areas and 14 of the top 20 are in Catholic/nationalist areas. In 2010, 54 per cent of those unemployed were Catholics compared to 46 per cent for Protestants – an unemployment rate of 9 per cent as opposed to 6 per cent. That gap has narrowed significantly since the 90s but will inevitably widen again as the public sector, where most Catholics are employed, gets hit by cuts.

It is absolutely clear that both Protestant and Catholic workers are being hit by unemployment and cuts to public services. Therefore would it not be far better to protest about this than a flag? But while loyalist workers continue to be pledged to their sectarian state, they will always have one hand tied behind their back when it comes to fighting for their class interests.

Loyalist pogroms

The union has always been about relative material privilege for Protestants – a Protestant state for a Protestant people. This ideology is supremacist. We can march anywhere we like in our country, we can fly the flag at our whim and in your face, and anyone who disagrees is physically attacked. It is the language of pogroms and the Alliance Party experienced a small taste of what Catholic communities face.

The state of ‘Northern Ireland’ was founded on sectarian pogroms. In 1920 Lisburn and Banbridge’s Catholic populations were completely expelled. Murderous pogroms swept through Belfast that same year. All Catholic workers were driven out of Harland and Wolf shipyards. The same sectarian spirit accounted for the Bombay St pogrom in 1969 and the Battle of St Matthews, Short Strand in 1970. In fact every street march by loyalists conceals a pogrom in the making, as residents in the Short Strand have recently experienced.

The pogroms are a logical extension of the state-backed discrimination and repression that has become a permanent feature in the north. Anyone identifying with a united Ireland was fair game. ‘Northern Ireland’ was always an undemocratic prison house backed by Britain’s guns. The Good Friday Agreement can never alter the divisions in society so long as the sectarian state exists.

Where now?

The immediate task of the day is the defence of Short Strand. As in the 70s, citizens’ defence committees should be resurrected to provide the necessary disciplined and organised defence. Daily patrols are needed. Residents young and old, male and female, should participate and build a community defence force. A network of support groups should be built across Belfast’s nationalist areas.

These groups should develop as democratic defence organs of the community. They should also become a political alternative that fights against the Northern Ireland Executive/British government’s cuts programme and the continuing repression. They should call for joint strikes and occupations and blaze a trail for workers unity. In this way it can be demonstrated to Protestant workers that a joint struggle against austerity will benefit both communities. This will not suit Sinn Fein or the DUP, and it will expose the peace process for the sham that it is. Increasing impoverishment in the north will provoke more sectarian clashes if a socialist and fighting alternative is not built.

In Britain we will continue to call for the ending of repression against Republicans. We call for the release of Marian Price and all the Republican prisoners. British occupation of the north must end now. The people of Ireland as a whole should determine the future of the north. Only a 32-county Workers’ Republic can liberate all Irish workers from sectarianism and the failed states of the north and south.

Drop the charges: free Stephen Murney

More than 150 people held a white-line picket in Newry on 12 January to protest at the arrest and imprisonment of Stephen Murney. Stephen, from Derrybeg, Newry, is a local activist and member of the Irish Republican socialist group Eirigi.

At the beginning of December, he was remanded in custody and charged with “collecting and distributing information likely to be of use to terrorists”. These spurious charges are based on historical photographs of non-serving police officers, his son’s BB guns and band uniforms described as “combat-type” clothing. No hard evidence was presented at his arraignment.

Stephen refused to accept bail conditions that stipulate not staying in Newry or with his family. He has not been charged with any terrorist offence but has been a victim of the drive to quell all political opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.

Internment by remand is back again in the north where prisoners are kept for up to three years and then acquitted. In the north and south of Ireland both governments seem to be mounting a concerted campaign against political activists who oppose the peace process.

We need to mount a campaign within trade unions and political organisations to end the current victimisation of Republican activists in Ireland and demand that both governments end the repression.

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