As anti-racists, trade unions and others prepare to gather to oppose the far-right in Belfast, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll looks at how racism and fascism can be opposed.
Sinister forces have taken to the streets of Belfast in recent weeks, in an effort to coalesce a new far-right movement in the city. Some two hundred people joined the “Free Tommy Robinson” demonstration, with many shouting vile abuse at anti-racist protestors who gathered to oppose them. Marches like these will undoubtedly marginalise minority communities in the North, and embolden those intent on hate speech. There can be no doubt, therefore, that they must be opposed.
The Belfast demonstration purported to be a none-political march for “free speech”. But behind this facade of neutrality lie organised fascist groups. Generation Identity is one such organisation; a party intent on promoting the ‘ethno-national’ rights of white Europeans, or white supremacism in other words. Another organisation associated with these marches is the far-right hate group Britain First, who have unsuccessfully attempted to gain a foothold in Belfast in the last few years.
These groups represent very little, and garner little tangible support. But we should not be complacent and allow them space to grow.
Free Tommy Robinson?
The immediate backdrop to these marches was the imprisonment of far-right activist Tommy Robinson. Organisers claim that Robinson is the victim of state repression, impeding upon his innate right to free-speech. In truth, Robinson has been imprisoned for repeated breaches of a judicial order which may have prejudiced an ongoing court case. Indeed, Robinson almost certainly knew his actions would land him in jail. In all likelihood, he consciously set out to get himself arrested in a vain effort to place himself back into the headlines in order to revitalise the far-right street movement he once fronted.
Since his arrest, Robinson has become a cause célèbre for far-right figures across the world, including the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and former Trump aide Steve Bannon. And fascist groups such as Britain First and Generation Identity—crusaders for the maintenance of a supposedly oppressed white majority—have been scrambling to use his imprisonment to build support for their nasty and poisonous politics.
Tommy Robinson does not represent the “disenfranchised” or the “white working class” as his supporters claim. He is a former member of the BNP, founder of the far-right English Defence League, and a professional hate monger. Not once do these people lift a finger to defend the NHS or fight to house the homeless. Instead, they use these issues to try and blame immigrants and refugees, in turn increasing the cycle of racism. Their goal is to drive a racist wedge in our society and increase division and tension.
Like fascist movements in the past, the central thrust of Robinson’s politics is the demonisation of a minority of people. In his case, Muslims; who are an easy target after decades of state-sponsored attacks particularly during the so-called war on terror. Robinson and his ilk have picked up where Bush and Blair left off, stoking hatred against Muslims and painting them as the enemy. Some of the fascists argue that they aren’t racist because Islam is not a race, and that they are only opposed to the ideas of the religion. Again, this is a tactic repeatedly used by right-wing forces over the years. Similar arguments were made by sectarian forces in the past, for instance, when they justified their vicious bigotry as opposition to the ideology of “backward Catholicism.” And of course the overwhelming majority of Muslims are non-white, with much of the hatred hurled at them indistinguishable from other forms of racism.
Despite constant pretence to “facts”, Robinson’s hate is backed up by a very simple and well-worn tactic of the far-right: when an individual Muslim does something wrong, Robinson jumps on it, generalises it, and tars all Muslims with the same brush. But when a white person does something wrong, it is the action of an individual or an isolated incident. The vast majority of sexual crimes, for example, are carried out by white men. But it never occurs to Robinson that there is something innately wrong with whites, only Muslims. Racism 101 therefore.
Progressives in Belfast must be alive to the threat of far right politics on both sides of the sectarian divide. This might not always be obvious, given the character of the recent protests. It is true that one strategy of these organisations is to link scattered groups of disaffected loyalists with organised far-right parties. The Belfast Tommy Robinson rally, for example, was hosted by a Facebook page used to coordinate a bonfire, congregated outside a Rangers supporters club, and left from the predominantly loyalist Sandy Row. It was also bedecked in Union Jacks, and was chaired by Jolene Bunting; the Belfast city councillor closely associated with Britain First, who was formerly a representative of Traditional Unionist Voice. The next far-right rally will again march from the same place, and is being hosted by Bunting. As such, every effort must be made to highlight the fact that the vast majority of people from a Protestant background find this kind of thing abhorrent, and have no truck with groups like Britain First.
That said, it would be folly to imagine that such dangerous developments will only be contained to one side of the community. Firstly, racist ideas do not stop at the peace walls. Low-level incidents of racism have been recorded in both communities, and only last year socialists were building solidarity with a Syrian family in West Belfast who had been tortured on a nightly basis by thugs spouting racist abuse. This inchoate bigotry was not lost on the organisers of the Robinson rally either, who insisted that they were out to win both unionists and nationalists in several speeches, even bringing a couple of tricolours with them to give the impression of a cross community rally.
Worse still, efforts are being made to agitate in predominately Catholic areas of the city to raise support for these marches—with leaflets being delivered across the lower Falls, for example, urging people to join the next rally in support of Robinson. The literature conveniently failed to mention the event was associated with Jolene Bunting, nor did it advertise the Rangers supporters club as the gathering point. Still, we must make every effort to oppose the far-right wherever they raise their head, even when they are shy about revealing their true identity.
It might seem unusual for far-right organisations to promote themselves in this way. A quick glance at the history of fascist organisation in the North would suggest that it is not a new phenomenon, however. During the 1920’s, and particularly during the lean years of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, there were several attempts to organise far-right parties in the North. When Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) attempted to set up shop in the North in 1933—as the Ulster Fascists—they promoted themselves as a political current opposed to both Unionism and Nationalism.
Mosley was a British chauvinist, no doubt. But he was also good friends with individuals such as T. P. O’Connor and “wee” Joe Devlin; leading figures in Irish Nationalism and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. And there is evidence to suggest that his BUF managed to win some support from right-wing Irish Catholics, attracted by its virulent anti-communist rhetoric. When the group launched in Ulster, they insisted on their cross community nature; even attempting to associate themselves with the nascent working class unity witnessed during the Outdoor Relief Riots of 1932.
Like far-right organisations today, the BUF’s main focus was to insist on the creation of a “white” identity; attempting to win protestants as well as catholics to their ideology. Mosley also sought to link his ‘Blackshirt’ movement with the Irish fascist organisation in the South of Ireland led by Eoin O’Duffy; ‘the Blueshirts’. Mosley wanted to collaborate with O’Duffy to create an Irish state modelled after Hitler’s Third Reich, which would be a part of an expanding British Empire.
Of course, this strategy of cross-community fascism was hardly a case of plain sailing. James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, complained that a fascist movement was not needed in Ulster—the “Orange Order, the Black Brotherhood or the B Specials could substitute as fascists,” he insisted. Other groups with fascist links such as the Loyalty League, insisted upon the maintenance of the sectarian divide. And rival far-right forces—particularly those grouped around the notorious Nazi sympathiser Dorothy Harnett—actively sought to build fascism as an extreme variant of unionism, making as much of their anti-Catholicism as they did of their anti-Semitism, and involving themselves in a number of sectarian pogroms.
Efforts to create a white supremacist movement in the North of Ireland, therefore, have often vacillated between these two extremes. Indeed, Mosley’s Ulster Fascists would eventually split over the issue; with one wing insisting on cooperation with O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, whilst another wing decried his Irish Nationalism. Today, it is questionable whether the kind of white ‘identitarianism’ so sought after by groups like Generation Identity can trump sectarian loyalties. However, we must understand that fascism can grow anywhere, and insist that only a mass movement of working class people from across the divide is the surest way to isolate them, and pull their contradictions apart.
Defeating the Far Right
The latest incarnation of far right politics in Belfast is just as sinister as those of the past. Too often, however, progressives fall back on the presumption that they can never grow and should simply be ignored. This would be a terrible mistake—where far-right organisations have grown around the world, it is precisely because they weren’t opposed in an organised way.
Thankfully, groups like United Against Racism have been working diligently to create a consensus against these bigots. And crucially, they have won the support of the trade union movement—with NIC-ICTU and their various affiliates mobilising against the next far-right rally.
This is the key to defeating these people; mass mobilisations, people power, working class unity of ordinary catholics, protestants and migrants combined with the strength of the organised labour movement can overcome efforts to marginalise Muslims and others. Our strength is in our numbers. No pasarán!